Budget debate: S'pore's aviation sector to see some recovery this year, goal is to reopen safely, says Ong Ye Kung

The Republic will work to help its battered air hub adapt to a new normal and reopen safely.
The Republic will work to help its battered air hub adapt to a new normal and reopen safely.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore's aviation sector will see some recovery this year as some countries reopen their borders, but it will not be realistic to expect a "V-shape" rebound, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung.

Instead of forcing a sharp recovery, the Republic will work to help its battered air hub adapt to a new normal and reopen safely, he added on Friday (March 5) during the debate on his ministry's budget.

One key goal will be to build up confidence and belief that Changi Airport will still be an international air hub beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.

There are signs of this happening, he added, citing how scientists from the World Health Organisation decided to gather in Singapore and fly through Changi en-route to their study visit to Wuhan in China.

The minister was responding to MPs, including Ms Poh Li San (Sembawang GRC), on the Transport Ministry's strategies to revive the Changi air hub.

Said Mr Ong: "I don't have a watertight and detailed plan to present to the House, one that meets the much-vaunted high standards of our civil service. Instead, we can only be guided by an unfailing drive to keep pushing forward."

He told the House the Government will look to revive the aviation sector by replacing quarantine and stay-home notice requirements with measures that can also substantially reduce the risk of transmission.

This will be done in four ways - Covid-19 testing, "bubble wrapping" travellers to keep them away from the community, opening up to countries that have controlled the virus, and studying the implications of Covid-19 vaccinations.

Singapore can now perform more than 60,000 tests a day, which will help it detect infections early, he said.

On opening up to countries that are safe, Mr Ong cited how Singapore has unilaterally opened up to places such as Australia, Brunei and China.

"So far, the scheme has not led to any increase in local transmission," he said.

He added that Singapore has not given up on the idea of an air travel bubble, which allows for all forms of travel.

Singapore and Hong Kong were due to launch the arrangement in November, but it was postponed the day before its launch due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Hong Kong at the time.

On vaccinations, Mr Ong said Singapore is awaiting scientific data to determine the extent to which vaccinations can reduce transmission of the virus.

This could enable the country to allow vaccinated individuals to travel with fewer restrictions, and possibly without stay-home notices.

He added that Singapore has also been participating in discussions - both bilaterally and on international platforms - on a system to certify vaccinations against Covid-19.

He emphasised that the various measures to open up cannot work in isolation.

"In aviation... this lung needs inflating, but our head is under water. Each of these methods to reopen travel safely are like snorkels sticking out of the surface of the water," said Mr Ong. "They allow us to take in some oxygen, to keep Changi and Singapore Airlines going."

Currently, passenger volume at Changi Airport is at 2.5 per cent of the levels before the Covid-19 pandemic. Flight movements are at about 25 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, boosted by a surge in cargo flights.

Changi is currently connected to 66 cities around the world, compared with 160 cites before the pandemic.

Responding to Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas) and Workers' Party MP Dennis Tan (Hougang), Mr Ong said the aviation sector had lost 6,000 jobs as at the third quarter of last year.

About 500 were retrenchments, while the rest were due to early retirement and non-renewal of contracts. Most of the job losses have been shouldered by non-residents, and companies have managed to retain jobs due to various support measures, he added.

Mr Ong noted that the pandemic has claimed many casualties, in terms of lives, careers and years of hard work.

"Amongst them are notable brands - like Dan Ryans, Robinsons. I think we can get over the loss of these names... But if we lose SIA or Changi Airport, life in Singapore will never be the same. We will be bereft."

He also acknowledged that there will be setbacks in Singapore's bid to open up. "With each setback, we will be questioned why we even bothered with such an idea, why are we so naive, why we did not plan properly.

"But try we must. The worst thing to do now is not even try. That is giving up the fight. With vaccines, the fight is shifting in our favour."