SYDNEY/SINGAPORE • Asia-Pacific airlines have lost billions of dollars this year, with jets grounded in Covid-19 transportation freezes. Now, as some of the world's strictest pandemic-related travel rules begin to ease, the airlines are ramping up flights and ticket offers.
Asian travel agencies and carriers said they are seeing a surge in bookings and travel inquiries as countries like Malaysia and Vietnam allow domestic flights to resume from this week, after months of strict lockdowns.
India is lifting a domestic capacity cap, while Singapore, Thailand and Fiji are opening their borders to vaccinated travellers from select countries to enter without quarantine.
While airline industry group International Air Transport Association (Iata) does not expect a significant improvement in Asia-Pacific international travel until next year, carriers from AirAsia Group and VietJet Aviation to Singapore Airlines, Fiji Airways and Qantas are already increasing capacity.
Iata predicted that the estimated cumulative losses of US$11.2 billion (S$15.2 billion) this year would narrow to US$2.4 billion next year.
"The most important thing is practically all governments in the Asia-Pacific region, with maybe one or two exceptions, are abandoning their Covid-zero strategies and moving to a sort of Covid-normal framework," said Mr Subhas Menon, director-general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines.
While curbs are easing, a full return to normal operations is a long way off. Iata estimated global aviation industry losses from the pandemic would be US$200 billion from 2020 to 2022, with losses in Asia alone being close to US$50 billion last year. International travel in the Asia-Pacific region was at around 4 per cent of 2019 levels in August.
Although the relaxation of restrictions will open the way for tourism, it will be a comparative trickle initially: Thailand expects only around 100,000 foreign visitors this year, down from nearly 40 million in 2019.
Still, there is pent-up demand from those who have longed to be able to take a break overseas.
Mr Dickson Ng, 24, a consultant based in Singapore, said he plans to travel to Europe in January.
"We don't know if these VTLs (Vaccinated Travel Lanes) would be rescinded. Right now, there's opportunity and there's Covid-19 fatigue, so I think getting out of the country will be a good thing," he said.
Meanwhile, Fiji Airways has had thousands of bookings since the country announced on Sunday that it would open borders to vaccinated travellers from some destinations on Dec 1. The vast majority of these bookings were from Australians, a spokesman for the airline said.
Some carriers are already promoting bargain fares.
Vietnamese low-cost carrier VietJet is offering some free domestic one-way tickets, excluding taxes and fees, while Malaysia's AirAsia has fares as low as RM12 (S$3.90) as it ramps up flights.
AirAsia said traffic to its mobile app had surged by more than 140 per cent since the government relaxed domestic travel rules.
But Singapore has capped the number of arrivals under its VTL scheme at 3,000 a day in total, a tiny fraction of pre-pandemic traffic - a move that has kept ticket prices high.
Singapore tour agency Chan Brothers Travel said inquiries had increased fifty-fold in the last week since more countries, including South Korea, the United States and Britain, were added to the VTL scheme.
Return economy-class fares from Singapore to South Korea have nearly doubled to around $1,500 from $800 previously, said a spokesman for Singapore's Dynasty Travel.
"Some travellers may wait for the initial price surge for flights to pass, but we can expect quite a number of travellers taking to the skies by the first half of 2022," she said.