SINGAPORE - Singapore Airlines (SIA) enjoyed an almost ninefold annual increase in passenger numbers last month as air travel started taking off following the lifting of travel restrictions.
SIA and its low-cost subsidiary Scoot together carried 893,000 passengers in March, up from 544,600 in February and 100,100 in March 2021.
Passenger load factor, which measures seat occupancy, rose to 54.5 per cent, a jump of 41.7 percentage points from a year earlier.
The average passenger load factor during the pre-pandemic era was upwards of 78 per cent.
The month of March thus represents the highest load factor since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
On the cargo side, load factors remained a healthy 72.5 per cent in March 2022, though 19.8 per cent down from a year ago. But actual cargo loads carried rose 16.6 per cent on the back of an additional capacity of 48.3 per cent - hence the fall in load factor.
Cargo loads to and from China and Hong Kong were constrained by pandemic controls there.
With flights resuming for more destinations in Australia, South-east Asia and South Africa, as well as to Gatwick (via Bangkok) and Newark, the group passenger network covered 93 destinations by the end of last month.
With the major reopening of borders, the group's operating numbers for this month are expected to be significantly higher than even March.
But it will likely take some time before the operating numbers match the pre-pandemic levels of 2019 when SIA Group carried some 3.5 million passengers.
Nevertheless, the group has restored almost 60 per cent of its capacity and flies to up to 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic destinations or routes.
Two months ago, the group unveiled a profit of $85 million for the third quarter ending Dec 31, 2021, turning around from a loss of $142 million a year earlier.
For the nine months to end-December, SIA still posted a loss of $752 million, though this was a huge improvement from the $3.6 billion loss during the comparable nine months at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
Most analysts expect the January-March quarter to be profitable for SIA, but not enough to lift full-year results into the black.
But given the solid forward bookings, the outlook remains bright, and the company's balance sheet remains stable.
To date, SIA Group has raised $22.4 billion in fresh liquidity since April 2020, including $15 billion from shareholders through rights shares and mandatory convertible bonds, as well as bond issuances, secured financing, and sale-and-leaseback transactions.
SIA also has an additional $2.1 billion available in untapped credit lines.
To recapture the travel market, the airline has been actively building up collaborative partnerships with regional peers such as Malaysia Airlines and Garuda, as well as international carriers like United Airlines. It also has significant partnerships with Air New Zealand, ANA of Japan, Lufthansa, SAS, Virgin Australia and Vistara in India.
As at end-March, SIA had 33 code-share partners and access to over 200 additional destinations.
Meanwhile, its cargo business - which has held strong during the pandemic as SIA became a carrier of choice to move vaccines and pharmaceuticals around the world - covers over 90 destinations with a fleet of 747-400F freighters, as well as the belly holds of its SIA and Scoot planes.
As at April 1, the group had 185 aircraft in its operating fleet. It also had 107 planes on order, including new Boeing 777-9s, Airbus A350-900s, and planes from the A320 and B737 range.
The main challenge remains fuel costs, which have risen significantly since the start of the war in Ukraine.
"Since the start of the vaccinated travel lanes in September last year, we have been nimble and agile in capturing the pent-up demand for air travel," said a spokesman. "We will remain alert to all revenue and growth opportunities that come this way as air travel returns."