Things were looking up for the aviation sector in ASEAN in the middle of this year.
But all hope for air travel was dashed as quickly as it was raised as Covid-19 returned with a vengeance, with a new wave involving the more infectious Delta variant of the novel coronavirus. The surge in infections came amid a shortage of vaccines.
Air hubs pushed back reopening plans as governments struggled to contain the virus just as things were getting better.
Tourist arrivals tumbled to record lows everywhere and only cargo volumes helped lift some air hubs.
Reopening, many realised, was not just about reviving flights, but also accepting that there is a trade-off – restoring connectivity comes with the prospect of rising case numbers, although vaccination mitigates the risk of serious infections.
Malaysia’s northwestern island Langkawi welcomed its first planeload of fully vaccinated travellers on September 16, as 159 people from the capital Kuala Lumpur landed to begin their first vacation after months of lockdown in the country.
Langkawi is now aiming for 400,000 visitors by the end of year, hoping they will spend some 165 million ringgit ($39 million).
Foreign tourists are not allowed yet, even though Langkawi International Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport were jointly named the world’s number-one airports for the second quarter of the year by the Airports Council International (ACI).
Meanwhile, Thailand reopened its two most popular resort islands, Phuket and Koh Samui, in early July, allowing fully vaccinated international tourists to visit without serving mandatory quarantine.
Similar larger plans for the whole country, however, have been delayed by a struggle with the Delta variant, which coursed through the population early this year amid a sluggish vaccination programme.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has vowed to reopen the country by next month despite the fact that only about a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated at present.
The state-owned Airports of Thailand has been badly hit by the pandemic, with revenue plunging by 87.7 per cent in the nine months to June 30.
Before the pandemic hit, the main Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok served 53.5 million international passengers in 2019. It handled a mere 527,411 in the first seven months of the year.
Aviation analyst Brendan Sobie said the revival of international air hubs “is a question of which countries are reopening faster, not which airports are reopening faster”.
“If you look at Bangkok particularly, it’s a lot of inbound traffic, so it completely hinges on the reopening of borders,” he told the Straits Times.
“So if Thailand opens up the borders faster and tourists come to Thailand sooner – even though they have a lower vaccination rate than Singapore – obviously, the traffic will recover faster in Bangkok than in Singapore.”
The fortunes of an air hub are also tied to its geographic location, said Sobie.
“Right now, Singapore is not really able to connect any two markets that are open,” he said. “Neither is Bangkok or Hong Kong, because they all rely on countries that haven’t reopened yet.”
How fast the main airline at an air hub would be able to restore its services and capacities would determine the air hub’s recovery if all regional borders reopened at the same time, Sobie pointed out.
Changi Airport’s recovery would be tied to the fortunes of Singapore Airlines, for example.
But Sobie cautioned that the choice of airports do not really figure high in travellers’ priorities. They are more concerned about the attractiveness of a destination.
“It becomes more of an issue of competition between airlines, and also an issue of competition between destinations,” he said.
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK