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Asia's two gateways keep their position atop air passenger traffic in 2015

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A Lion Air airplane takes off at Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, on March 18.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE Asia's two air travel gateway cities, Singapore and Hong Kong, proved their aviation-hub mettle by dominating the top of the rankings of the busiest international routes last year, according to statistics from the International Air Transport Association.

IATA's annual World Air Transport Statistics show that all of the top five international routes by passenger numbers were in Asia, and connected either Singapore or Hong Kong, as they cater to transit demand from a growing number of Asian travelers.

Among the familiar trunk routes, especially phenomenal growth was seen on the Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi)-to-Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur-to-Singapore routes.

The number of passengers traveling between Bangkok and Hong Kong last year increased 29.2% from 2014 to 3 million. Some 2.7 million passengers flew between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, up 13% from the previous year. Neither route made it into the top five the year before.

For the Singapore-to-Kuala Lumpur route, one of the driving factors was the enhanced presence of low-cost carriers. "Malindo entered the market and is carrying mainly passengers from Singapore to other markets beyond KL," said Brendan Sobie, chief analyst of the Sydney-based aviation think tank. Malindo Air, 49% owned by Indonesian LCC leader Lion Air, is based in Malaysia and started flying the cash cow route in November 2014.

Chinese travelers are believed to be behind the double-digit growth of these two routes. The Hong Kong-to-Bangkok demand includes passengers from various Chinese cities, who transit at Hong Kong to visit Thailand. The growth of the route in 2015 was from the low base. In 2014, many Chinese tourists avoided Southeast Asian holidays altogether, following a fatal Malaysia Airlines crash in March. Bangkok was hit hard due also to the political uncertainty at that time.

Chinese tourists to Thailand showed a strong recovery in 2015, marking a 71% increase to a record 7.9 million. The number is expected to grow this year.

The top two routes in the IATA ranking were unchanged from a year ago. Hong Kong-to-Taipei led the pack, followed by Jakarta-to-Singapore. But the passenger numbers were weaker, recording 2.1% growth and negative 2.6% growth respectively. The Singapore-to-Hong Kong route also saw a decrease of 3.2% and ranked fifth, two positions lower than in 2014.

The Asian aviation market continued to grow as a whole. The total number of passengers carried globally last year increased by 7.2% to 3.6 billion, recording a higher growth rate compared to 5.8% in the previous year, IATA said. Of those, one third or 1.2 billion passengers flew on airlines from the Asia-Pacific region.

There are, however, barriers to passenger growth in the region. The pace of airport expansion, which has failed to catch up with the demand surge in Asia, is limiting the room for airlines to operate on the popular routes.

Asian airlines are increasingly flying to smaller cities to avoid the overcrowded capitals in the region, a move that could potentially diffuse the current concentration on the trunk routes.

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