While it is unrealistic to expect the pandemic-battered aviation industry to rebound quickly this year, Transport minister Ong Ye Kung said that there would be some recovery as some borders reopen, facilitated by vaccinations and governments realising that they cannot close their borders perpetually.
Speaking today in a debate on his ministry’s budget, Ong told Parliament: “Our mission this year is not so much to force a sharp recovery, but to adapt to a new normal, to reopen safely and build up confidence and belief that Changi Airport will still be an international air hub post-Covid”.
Ong said that there are already signs of this happening. For instance, a team of scientists from the World Health Organization, bound for the Chinese city of Wuhan for a study visit, decided to gather first in Singapore and fly through Changi Airport.
Even so, Ong said that he does not have a water-tight and detailed plan that he can present to the House on how his ministry intends to resuscitate the aviation sector, owing to the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus.
Aviation has been one of the hardest-hit sectors since the pandemic struck, with governments across the globe shutting their borders to curb viral transmission.
Ong said that he and his team were, however, guided by an “unfailing drive to keep pushing forward”.
“Knowing that for every two steps forward, we may have to take one step back, sometimes two steps back. And knowing that if we are too reckless and ambitious and take too big a leap, we may have to be set back by a mile.
“With each setback, we and I will be questioned: ‘Why you even bother with such an idea, why never plan properly, why so naive?’ Fair questions.”
He said that the government, nevertheless, must keep trying and not give up the fight, which is increasingly turning in the sector’s favour with vaccines against Covid-19 being administered globally.
Reopening borders safely
For Singapore to reopen safely, Ong said that there was a need to replace quarantine requirements and stay-home notices with other methods that reduce the risk of transmission.
Testing travellers and “bubble-wrapping” them to keep them away from the community are two such methods.
Another is to open borders to travellers from countries that have successfully controlled the virus.
Ong said that Singapore has unilaterally opened borders with Australia, Brunei and China, and this has not resulted in increased transmission.
Air travel bubbles, which allow travellers to visit another country without undergoing quarantine, are another way, he noted.
Singapore and Hong Kong last year concluded a travel bubble agreement, but the arrangement was scuppered at the last minute when Covid-19 cases rose in Hong Kong. It has been postponed indefinitely.
Though no successful travel bubble has been launched, Ong said his ministry would not give up on the idea. The travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong could go ahead when the conditions are right.
In the meantime, vaccinations are a new critical development that would help in safely reopening borders.
“As more scientific data becomes available, we will be able to ascertain the extent to which vaccination reduces transmission of the virus,” Ong said.
“This will enable us to allow vaccinated individuals to travel with fewer restrictions, perhaps even without stay-home notices.”
This will require a certification system, and Singapore is engaging in bilateral discussions with other countries as well as with international bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation, said Ong.
Last week, the government announced that from next Wednesday, individuals travelling out of Singapore may obtain a digital version of their pre-departure Covid-19 test results.
This digital copy could eventually be presented to customs and airline officials for verification through a new certification standard known as HealthCerts. HealthCerts could be extended in future to verify digital vaccination certificates.
Ong today likened the aviation sector to someone whose head is underwater, saying that these methods to reopen safely were akin to snorkels sticking out of the water’s surface.
“They allow us to take in some oxygen, to keep Changi and SIA (Singapore Airlines) going. And each snorkel must not work in isolation.”
The pandemic has claimed many business casualties, among them notable brands such as the Robinsons department store.
He said that Singapore would get over the loss of these names, but not Changi Airport or SIA.
“If we lose SIA or Changi Airport, life in Singapore will never be the same. We will be bereft,” he said.
Changi Airport is now recording 2.5 per cent of its pre-pandemic passenger volume, said Ong. This is five times the figure when the outbreak struck.
Flight movements are now at a quarter of pre-pandemic levels, due in part to a surge in cargo flights on the back of strong demand for e-commerce and other orders.
The airport is now connected to 66 cities worldwide, compared with 160 pre-Covid-19. Ong expects connections to increase in the coming months to about 80 cities.