SINGAPORE – The Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble (ATB) is the first of its kind in the region – perhaps the world – and that is significant, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung on Wednesday (11 November).
In a virtual media conference, he said, “It is an air travel bubble between two regional aviation hubs who decide to open up to each other, and that is significant. There is no restriction on what kind of travellers so it’s quite unlike the RGL (Reciprocal Green Lane), which is restricted to business travellers. This covers all travellers: couples uniting, partners uniting, visiting families, tourism, so on and so forth.”
Under the ATB, which will start on 22 November, travellers between Singapore and Hong Kong will be subject to COVID-19 tests, in lieu of quarantine or Stay-Home Notice. There will be no restrictions on the purpose of travel and no requirement for a controlled itinerary or sponsorship, but travellers must bear the cost of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests.
It will begin with one flight a day into each city, with 200 passengers each way. Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airlines, the respective flagship carriers for each city, will take turns to run flights on alternate days.
Ong stressed that the ATB is not only the first step to rebuild the respective aviation hubs, but “in the case of Singapore, (it) is not just about the aviation sector or tourism sector, it is about making sure there is a future for Changi, there is a future for SIA”.
Asked why the two sides had chosen to go straight into the ATB rather than begin with an RGL, Ong said it was down to the two cities’ familiarity with each other as aviation hubs, and a recognition that the respective airports and airlines are “critical to our survival”. The Republic was also responding to the territory’s invitation to various countries to establish an ATB
“And so from day one, I think we don't beat around the bush, to say that let's go for air travel bubble, rather than take it step by step. So it's really a meeting of the minds.”
Ong added that if successful, the ATB will be a good reference point for others.
“If we can demonstrate to the world that this is successful, it becomes a good reference point, a template and a model that other places, other territories and countries can look at as a point of reference. There are quite a number of places where they have very successfully controlled the virus and epidemic, just like Hong Kong and Singapore have, and they are considering how to open their borders and I hope this could be a template and a reference point for them.”
A six-hour wait in Hong Kong?
Under the ATB arrangements, travellers from Singapore to the territory must be tested for the coronavirus within 72 hours of their departure, then take another test upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA). They are also required to wait at HKIA for their test results.
When asked how long the process would take, Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) director-general Kevin Shum said it would likely take “less than six hours”. Ong expressed hopes that it would take four hours, and that drinks and amenities would be provided.
Acknowledging the “inconvenience and discomfort” of the process, the Minister nevertheless said, “This is as close as it gets to pre-COVID travel, in the sense that wherever you are now, on the Hong Kong side or Singapore side, you don't need anyone to sponsor, to tell you you can travel, or you need a special reason, then you can travel. Now the empowerment is turned around again...you can travel if you want to.”
Ong admitted that he was unsure about travellers’ response to the scheme, and reckoned that they would take a wait-and-see approach first. “I want to see whether I can send off the first batch of Singaporeans on the 22nd of November. It may be a half empty or an empty plane, or a full plane,” said Ong, adding that he hopes the airlines will be “responsible” in their pricing, given the pent up demand for travel.
Suspension of ATB?
There are also provisions in place if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 cases on either side. If the average number of daily unlinked cases over a seven-day period rises to more than five in either Singapore or Hong Kong, the ATB will be suspended for two weeks. The ATB will resume if the number falls back below five on the last day of the suspension period.
Asked what would happen to those who have already booked flights and tests if the ATB is indeed suspended, Ong’s response was bullish. “We didn't set up the ATB or the ATP system with the expectation that we will suspend it someday. We are working really hard to make sure we don't have to suspend it, but this is just in case there are clusters again.”
Nevertheless, there will be procedures for travellers to defer their plans until the ATB restarts, said Ong.
The 50-year-old said that in the early days of the pandemic, the priority was eradicating the virus from the community, and this necessitated the closing of borders. “But now if that is still our problem statement, that is itself a problem, because it means there's a high chance that at the end of all this, we have no Changi Airport and we have no SIA.”
He added, “It's not about the economy, it's about our life...So our choice now is, can we accept some controlled risk that we can mitigate to a very small extent. And we take some of those risks, but give us ourselves the best chance…to continue to maintain our way of life.”
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