A Singapore aviation institute has flagged a patchy intra-region air traffic recovery in Southeast Asia —with some countries reopening first to other countries outside the region —because of regional constraints and a “lack of consensus”. 

A whitepaper from the Aviation Studies Institute at the Singapore University of Technology and Design warns that while the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc are “already behind other regions” in domestic recoveries, it now “risks falling behind in recovering regionally”. 

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport

Source: Gurkan Ergun/Shutterstock.com

Southeast Asian countries face a patchy recovery prospect

The whitepaper, authored by independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie, builds on a December 2020 edition, which had, among other things, called on ASEAN to consider a framework for intra-region travel bubbles, to provide a boost for traffic recovery. 

Since then, the paper notes that ASEAN countries have “continued to experience passenger traffic declines that are sharper than the global and Asia-Pacific averages”. 

In a year since the pandemic hit the region, major Southeast Asian hubs have witnessed passenger traffic plummet to unprecedented lows. Singapore’s Changi Airport, for instance, saw a 98% decline in traffic from April 2020 to March 2021, compared to 2019 levels. 

At Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport, used mainly by low-cost carriers and leisure travellers, passenger numbers fell a staggering 99.9%. 

On air travel bubble arrangements, which the initial whitepaper had called for, Sobie notes that “there are still no [travel bubbles] within ASEAN”. The only travel bubble forged by a Southeast Asian country — Singapore, with Hong Kong — has been twice deferred. 

“[Air travel bubbles] could have a significant impact on international traffic as they permit leisure travel. Other platforms facilitating the resumption of international air travel such as travel corridors or green lanes are not as significant as they allow only essential business travel,” the paper reiterates. 

A pan-ASEAN travel bubble “does not mean every…country would implement [a travel bubble] with all other ASEAN countries at once”. 

“The proposed concept is to provide ASEAN countries with a common framework so they can implement bubbles with each other when they are ready. There can also be a mechanism for suspending or delaying the start of any bubble if the number of untraceable cases exceeds a certain threshold,” the paper adds, pointing toward the measures put in place for the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble as an example. 

The paper also hailed discussions on a common digital vaccine or health passport as an important initiative toward travel resumption within the region. 

Ultimately, the success of an intra-region travel restart depends on ASEAN governments working together. 

“So far during the pandemic there has been a lack of consensus between countries in ASEAN and globally in adopting new travel protocols and in adopting potential digital travel health passport solutions. Governments are supporting some of these individual trials and it is now critical that ASEAN governments work together to achieve consensus.”

It adds: ”The ASEAN aviation and tourism sectors would particularly benefit from a resumption of travel between ASEAN countries. It is also important for the overall ASEAN economy and ASEAN relations to restore connectivity.”

“ASEAN is already behind other regions in terms of the domestic recovery. ASEAN now risks falling behind in recovering regionally.”