Working Group Discusses Ways to Bring Back Air Transport

The working group on air linkages in the BIMP-EAGA subregion met in August to share lessons and experiences in responding to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis and explore areas of collaboration.

Regular commercial flights between the four member countries Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have yet to resume. Among the measures being discussed to kickstart regional air transport services are the creation of travel bubbles, adoption of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) COVID-19 guidelines, and chartered flights for cargo.

Impact of COVID-19

Malaysia’s Transport Undersecretary for Aviation Mohammad Radzuan Mazlan chaired the special virtual meeting on 18 August, leading the discussions on how the subregion can improve air connectivity during the pandemic. He remarked that 2019 was a good year for the subregion.

In the aviation sector, new flight services were launched last year to support increasing demand from tourists and business travelers.

However, the pandemic has hit the aviation sector hard in 2020, said Mazlan. It is second only to tourism as the most affected sector. “Both rely on each other. We have to revive the aviation sector to connect people” and support economic recovery measures.

All four countries reported drastic reductions in passenger and cargo volume and revenues as a result of COVID-19 restrictions (i.e., quarantines, lockdowns). Airlines have suffered huge losses and are cutting down overhead costs, including manpower, to survive. Airport revenues are also down.

Reviving the industry

The countries have started to ease restrictions to enable economic recovery while still enforcing health and safety protocols to protect the public and prevent the spread of the disease. These include health screenings and mandatory quarantine for air travelers. Borders are still closed however to most foreigners.

Members of the working group underscored the need for a strategic plan for the resumption of air services in the subregion. This includes initiating discussions between countries to introduce travel bubbles and following the “Take-off: Guidance for Air Travel” framework of ICAO.

Also called a “green lane (or zone),” a travel bubble allows the flow of people between safe zones and does not require a 14-day quarantine. It covers areas with low or no recent COVID-19 cases. The creation of a travel bubble will involve close cooperation between governments in partnership with the private sector.

The ICAO’s COVID-19 Aviation Recovery Task Force has introduced a framework for addressing the impact of the pandemic on the global air transport system and boost the demand for aviation services. It supports the standardized implementation of practices to mitigate health risks to passengers and workers while gaining back the confidence of travelers, business, and governments.

Focus on cargo operations

Kuancheng Huang, a senior transport specialist at the Asian Development Bank, also presented strategic responses and recommendations for air transport at the meeting. Proposed recovery measures include travel bubbles for international travel and green lanes for freight and logistics, contactless systems for embarkation/disembarkation of passengers and for payment and delivery of small parcels, and repurposing passenger planes to fill shortfalls in capacity for essential cargo.

Huang said air cargo is crucial for airlines to make a profit or narrow losses during this period, and it is a lifeline for the economy. He proposed that the countries consider removing regulatory obstacles and speeding up the approval of special charters, repurposing passenger planes for cargo operations, and relaxing crew quarantine requirements.

He said governments can work with airlines, perhaps through financial relief programs, to ensure that they maintain minimum scheduled services or regular charters to avoid disruptions in the supply chain. They can also actively intervene by chartering special flights and/or providing subsidies for time-sensitive goods to ensure cargo space availability and affordability.

The meeting was attended by officials from the BIMP-EAGA states, BIMP-EAGA Facilitation Centre, BIMP-EAGA Business Council, ADB, and airlines. The Brunei Darussalam delegation was represented by Haji Aminuddin bin Hj Mohd Taib, Acting Director of the Department of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Transport and Infocommunications. The Indonesian delegation was represented by Ade Kusuma, Deputy Director for Air Transport Cooperation, Directorate General of Civil Aviation. The Malaysian delegation was represented by Stien Van Lutam, Deputy Undersecretary of Aviation Division, Ministry of Transport. The Philippine delegation was represented by Gerardo O. Gambala, Director IV, Transportation Oversight and Compliance Service, Office for Transportation Security.

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