KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Joseph Soosai and his sister were looking forward to attending their niece's wedding in Singapore on Feb 5, but the high airfares under a quarantine-free travel scheme and the costs associated with numerous Covid-19 tests put paid to their plans.
Mr Soosai, 69, said he would have had to fork out RM1,600 (S$515) each for a return vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flight on either Malaysia Airlines (MAS) or Singapore Airlines (SIA).
On top of that, there would have been a total of 15 polymerase chain reaction and antigen rapid tests in both Singapore and Malaysia, which would have set him back by at least RM1,400 a person. Moreover, both the retiree and his 60-year-old sister were worried about contracting Covid-19 while on the plane.
"There is so much hassle... forget about it," he told The Straits Times.
Soaring demand for limited VTL flights between Malaysia and Singapore during the Chinese New Year festive season and the 50 per cent reduction in capacity quota in view of rising Covid-19 cases globally due to the more transmissible but less severe Omicron variant have driven up the price of air tickets.
Travellers can opt for the land VTL between Singapore and Johor but capacity here has also been halved to 48 bus trips daily with a total of about 2,300 passengers.
The two designated bus operators for the land VTL, Transtar Travel and Causeway Link, have reported brisk sales, with all tickets sold out till March.
Ms Jeniece Yong, 62, said her two daughters working in Singapore decided against returning to Malaysia for the Chinese New Year period after airfares soared to RM1,800 per person one way, while seats on carriers like AirAsia, Malindo Air and MAS were sold out.
In contrast, she paid only RM400 to fly to Singapore on AirAsia to spend two weeks during the Christmas period with her daughters.
"My daughters will fly back to Malaysia either in July or the third quarter of this year instead," she told ST.
Currently, six carriers offer quarantine-free flights between both countries, namely SIA, MAS, AirAsia, Scoot, Malindo Air and Jetstar Asia.
A check by ST showed that VTL flights for some airlines like SIA and Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia have sold out for weeks.
"Our VTL flights have been fully booked since before the Chinese New Year holidays began all the way through to mid-March 2022," said Mr Riad Asmat, chief executive of AirAsia Malaysia.
Seats that are available from some airlines in the first two weeks of March cost up to RM1,500 one way into Singapore, while a return ticket is about RM2,200
In contrast, airfares on non-VTL flights are about 50 per cent to 60 per cent cheaper.
"With the high demand and constrained supply, lower airfares can be quickly exhausted," Mr Calvin Chan, chief commercial officer for Scoot, SIA's budget arm, said in response to ST's queries.
Carriers that operate VTL flights between Malaysia and Singapore told ST that they continue to see high demand for the scheme.
"Malaysia Airlines' VTL flight recorded 100 per cent load factor within the capacity limit," the Malaysian national carrier said.
"We have also seen a moderate demand for non-VTL flights," it added, without elaborating further.
A spokesman for SIA said the airline continues to see a high demand for its VTL flight between the two countries but it is unable to disclose specific figures owing to commercial sensitivity.
"Airfares are determined by supply and demand, and therefore dynamic and subject to change," the spokesman said, adding that all VTL flights are subject to the Singapore Government's arrival quota.
To cater to the high demand within the current regulation constraints, Mr Chan said Scoot has deployed its largest aircraft, a 375-seat Boeing 787-9 for the service.
"Scoot will operate more VTL flights as the present restrictions are gradually eased," he said.