SINGAPORE - The number of passengers passing through Changi Airport has crossed the 5 per cent mark of pre-pandemic levels for the first time since Covid-19 forced borders shut in March last year.
Mr Lim Ching Kiat, managing director of air hub development at Changi Airport Group (CAG), told The Straits Times that the number of passengers passing through the airport in November was at about 6 per cent to 7 per cent of the levels prior to the pandemic.
He said the launch of the vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs), which allow vaccinated travellers to fly into Singapore without quarantine, has brought about a gradual return of more flights and passengers since September.
Singapore will have started a total of 24 VTLs, including for major markets such as Britain and Malaysia, by Thursday (Dec 16).
In September, when only VTLs for Germany and Brunei were operational, passenger traffic at Changi Airport had been at about 3 per cent of the levels before the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group also reported improved results in November, ahead of the year-end holiday season.
The group, which comprises SIA and Scoot, said on Wednesday that it ferried more than 300,000 passengers in November, amid the expansion of its VTL network to nine more cities during the month.
The figure is about 9 per cent of the number of passengers it ferried in November 2019, before the pandemic struck. But it represents an increase of 59.4 per cent compared with October 2021.
Industry observers had expected an even stronger recovery for the Singapore air hub in the traditional year-end holiday season in December. But optimism had been dampened by the emergence of the Omicron variant, which had prompted countries to reintroduce stricter testing measures.
Mr Lim said: "For now, it is too early to say how the new variant will impact air travel in the longer term.
"However, Changi remains hopeful that the situation will continue to improve with more vaccination and the close attention on the health safety of airport staff and passengers."
Experts also cautioned that a long road to recovery remains ahead for the Singapore air hub.
Mr Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst from Endau Analytics, said there is still a monumental challenge to return to business as usual, with 5 per cent being a tiny figure for a global airport such as Changi.
"I see Changi's path to normalcy to be a long-drawn-out process that will take two to three years. This will perhaps take longer, if the world remains hostage to Covid-19," he said.
Associate Professor Volodymyr Bilotkach, who is from the air transport management degree programme in the Singapore Institute of Technology, noted that a considerable share of that extra traffic through Changi Airport represents delayed demand, as people are taking trips they have not been able to take over the last two years.
He added that the travel restrictions still in place in key markets such as China, Hong Kong and Australia will limit the extent to which travel with those destinations will recover.
To achieve a meaningful recovery, such as to at least 50 per cent of the levels before the pandemic, the Government can consider a more liberal approach to travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers, said Prof Bilotkach.
He cited the example of the United States, which allows vaccinated travellers from many countries to enter with a negative pre-departure test. A similar move in Singapore could lead to considerable recovery up to 60 pe cent or 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, said Prof Bilotkach.
He suggested that Singapore could start by setting up a common VTL to cover all of the European Union and expanding VTLs within the region around the Republic.
"Yet, VTLs should not be considered as the endgame," he said.
"Rather, it is a temporary fix until the real removal of travel barriers."
Note: This article has been updated for clarity.