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Asia needs to resume air travel faster, says airline group head

'Ironical' that region with 'very few' virus cases lags Europe's restart efforts

Asian carriers are facing massive economic damage due to the new coronavirus.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Asian governments are moving too slowly to reopen borders to international travel, the chief of a regional aviation group told the Nikkei Asian Review, saying states were failing to capitalize on their success in curbing the spread of the new coronavirus.

Subhas Menon, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines and former regional vice president of Singapore Airlines, said it was "ironical" that Europe was further along than Asia in trying to reconnect countries, despite the former having suffered far more illnesses and deaths from the contagion.

Governments in Asia need to move faster to restore travel links to regain consumer confidence, said Menon. The aviation industry has been thrust into crisis by the pandemic, with most airlines staring into a financial abyss after fleets were grounded and travel bans imposed.

"Unfortunately, in Asia-Pacific I find governments are reluctant to open up rules to allow [international] travelers," said Menon. "Asia-Pacific was the first to confront the virus. So logically speaking, Asia-Pacific should be the one to first recover. But instead it is Europe that is doing it ... which is very ironical if you look at any country in Asia-Pacific [which now has] no or very few cases of coronavirus."

While some Asian countries have started to open borders to one another through "travel bubbles" -- agreements between countries that have sufficiently contained COVID-19 to open their borders to regular travel -- Menon's criticism reflects frustration in the airline industry that more commercial flights have not been allowed to resume.

The Kuala Lumpur-based AAPA includes international airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, ANA Holdings, Japan Airlines and China Airlines. It is run as a nonprofit organization fully funded by annual airline memberships.

Aviation companies in the region have been hit hard by travel restrictions, including strict border control. Another AAPA member, Thai Airways International, is facing a major overhaul under bankruptcy proceedings while Cathay has been rescued by the Hong Kong government. The region's biggest low-cost carrier, AirAsia Group, decided to reduce its workforce by up to 30%.

AAPA Director General Subhas Menon says quarantines and other restrictions should be removed when countries reopen borders. (Photo courtesy of AAPA).

The European Commission recommended to Schengen member states and associated countries to lift internal border controls from Monday, and gradually reopen borders to non-European Union members starting July 1 to help the summer tourism industry.

Italy, France, Germany and other countries in Europe have started opening up to visitors from certain countries, most of which do not require coronavirus tests.

As of Friday, Italy had recorded 238,000 cases, France 195,000 and Germany 189,000, each far exceeding China's 84,000 and Singapore's 41,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. India is the only Asian country which has more confirmed cases than Italy, with 366,000.

Meanwhile, Asia has witnessed several agreements between two or more countries to resume travel, spearheaded by fast-track entry in May between China and South Korea for business travelers. Similar moves started earlier this month between China and Singapore, as well as China and Hong Kong, but some travel restrictions remain.

Travelers are required to take coronavirus tests before departure and after arrival. Those from Singapore will be issued a 14-day stay-at-home mandate after returning from China. A 14-day compulsory quarantine requirement is imposed on executives traveling from Hong Kong, and on those returning to the mainland after being in Hong Kong.

"This is not really the travel which will attract demand. ... It's just essential or official travel with a lot of restrictions," said AAPA's Menon, raising the issue of complicated requirements that incur additional overhead. "We've been getting our travel bubbles for about almost two months now, but the only travel bubbles that have taken off are in the European Union."

"What I fear is that if governments do not heed the advice given by the International Civil Aviation Organization and do their own things without consulting other governments, we will be in the same situation as we are in today. ... That will result in very poor public confidence," he added, underlining the need for Asian authorities to act in common.

The International Civil Aviation Organization -- an agency of the United Nations -- published guidelines this month for restoring global air connectivity, based on advice from the World Health Organization. The proposal recommends a phased approach. Measures include the wearing of face masks by passengers and aviation workers, routine sanitation and disinfection, and contact tracing for passengers as well as aviation employees.

"The ICAO guidelines do not say that you need to have quarantine requirements, compulsory testing or anything like that between countries which experienced the containment," said Menon. "Because if you are moving from a safe environment to another safe environment, then the risk of imported cases is mitigated. So you don't need these requirements."

The International Air Transport Association estimated in May that it would take until 2022 for domestic travel to return to 2019-levels, in terms of revenue passenger kilometers -- a key aviation metric -- and international travel in 2024. "I suppose it's a logical estimation," Menon said.

The aviation industry in Asia has been fueled by budget airlines and the rise of a middle class wanting to travel overseas, as evidenced by the surge in international travel by Chinese. But Menon said, "We are not talking about a recovery yet until we see the restart taking place and momentum for the restart gaining ground. So, probably toward the later part of the year, maybe we can start looking forward to our recovery."

Domestic travel will lead the rise, Menon said, as China witnessed during its May holiday. The recovery will be followed by regional travel, and finally by intercontinental travel, which will take the longest time, he added.

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