Asia-Pacific airlines call for more action on restoring air travel

November 15, 2021
Photo: Changi Airport.

With International passenger volumes across the Asia-Pacific still at just 6 percent of pre-pandemic levels, the leaders of the region’s major airlines have called on governments to do more to restore global connectivity.

The Association of Asia Pacific Airlines Assembly of Presidents met last week to discuss the major issues of the day: reducing carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050 and rebuilding global air travel and connectivity.

The Asia-Pacific international travel figures compare to an average of 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels in other regions and stem from a lag in reopening borders and easing restrictions compared to those regions.

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While cargo has provided some relief, the AAPA noted this was not enough to mitigate the losses from the significantly reduced commercial passenger operations.

It also pointed to the economic damage affecting an industry that accounts for US$944 billion of Asia-Pacific GDP and more than half of the people employed in the aviation industry globally.

The airline chiefs called on governments to restore global connectivity and reopen borders swiftly to reunite families as well as revive trade and commerce.

“Many communities in the region are dependent on aviation as an essential means of transportation and source of livelihood,’’ said AAPA director-general Subhas Menon. “AAPA applauds the efforts of governments to accelerate the vaccination of their populations and gradually ease travel restrictions.

“It is hoped that quarantine requirements will be progressively lifted, with air travel made accessible to a wider segment of the population, such as those who have recovered from COVID infections.

“The industry has already embraced all health measures recommended by ICAO and WHO to keep air travel safe for passengers and crew, with the risk of onboard transmission being widely accepted as being very low.”

Menon told reporters that the airline chiefs had approached the meeting with hope and cautious optimism.

“We do see light at the end of the tunnel and more and more governments are coming up with roadmaps to open their borders and also understanding the importance of sustainability for the airlines,’’ he said.

The airline bosses saw the establishment of quarantine-free vaccinated travel lanes as the first step in reopening borders

But they called on governments to adopt measures such as a robust multilateral framework with mutually recognized protocols for vaccination, testing and identification to restart air travel safely and efficiently.

They also want governments to cooperate with industry in rebuilding travel confidence including the adoption of digital tools to reduce delays, congestion and inconvenience for travelers.

While Menon said the hope was for a smooth and sustainable recovery, he conceded the challenges were “quite daunting”.

These included low vaccination levels in some countries as well as difficulties getting governments to recognize vaccines, vaccination certificates and other travel documents,

The AAPA chief said the process of setting up mutual recognition remained  “a bit of a mess” but it was still early days and more discussion was needed between governments.

He believed the industry had shown it was resilient and members were up to the challenge of working collectively to achieve their goal.

He also noted that governments attending the ICAO High-Level Conference on COVID-19 had agreed to forge a consensus on how to harmonize certificates as well as measures to make it easier for people to travel internationally.

On the question of climate change, the assembly committed to working with governments and industry partners on the goal it set in September to reach net-zero carbon emissions by  2050.

Current industry plans mainly rely on the development of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and the CORSIA global carbon offsetting scheme to achieve the reduction, with technology and operational improvements playing smaller roles.

AAPA does not expect highly-publicized technologies such as hydrogen-powered and electric aircraft to be available before 2040 and even then on routes of less than 1500 kilometres.

Menon said the industry was committed to reducing its carbon footprint in a responsible manner but conscious of the challenges ahead of it.

“Facilities for producing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) are severely lacking in the Asia-Pacific compared to other regions,’’ he said.

“Taxes, onerous regulations and other penalties would only increase the cost of travel without any benefit to the environment.

“Conversely, government incentives and investment would contribute to the effective development of sustainable fuels and new energy sources to bolster the industry’s efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.”