SINGAPORE - The first quarantine-free flights for vaccinated travellers from Kuala Lumpur, India and Indonesia landed at Changi Airport on Monday (Nov 29), amid growing fears that a new Covid-19 variant could force international borders to shut again.
The vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) for Finland and Sweden are also due to kick off as planned on Monday.
News of the Omicron variant, which is assessed by the World Health Organisation to have a "very high" global risk, has in the past two days triggered Japan and Italy to announce plans to close their borders to foreigners.
The Republic's move to reopen to travellers from India and Kuala Lumpur is especially significant, given that both were major markets for Changi Airport prior to the pandemic. While Indonesia was also a major market, it has not reopened its borders to Singapore yet.
Under the VTL, travellers vaccinated against Covid-19 can enter Singapore without having to serve quarantine. They have to take designated flights into Singapore, among several other requirements.
A total of 29 designated VTL flights will land in Changi Airport on Monday. Of this, 10 are flights from new VTL destinations. They comprise six flights from Malaysia, two flights from Indonesia, and two flights from India.
The first VTL flight from Kuala Lumpur, Jetstar Asia's 3K684, touched down at Changi Airport at 10.02am on Monday.
Jetstar Asia also operated the first VTL flight to Malaysia, with flight 3K683 departing for Kuala Lumpur with 170 passengers at about 7.20am. The 180-seater Airbus A320 aircraft landed at 8.19am.
A Jetstar Asia spokesman said the start of the VTL flights is an important milestone in the carrier's recovery from the pandemic.
She said the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore route has always been a critical route, and the bilateral VTL agreement between both countries will help to restore one of the world's busiest international air links.
"We are seeing strong demand for these VTL services, highlighting the pent-up demand of customers wanting to reconnect with family, friends and colleagues," she added.
Meanwhile, the first VTL flight to Kuala Lumpur by Singapore Airlines (SIA), SQ108, landed at 9.24am. A spokesman said the flight touched down to a water cannon salute.
The return flight, SQ107, departed Kuala Lumpur at 10.25am and arrived in Singapore at 11.35am.
"This is an important milestone that supports the safe reopening of borders, allowing families and loved ones to finally reunite and supporting the demand for both leisure and business travel," said SIA.
From Monday, SIA will operate 10 weekly return VTL services between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. This is in addition to 18 weekly return non-VTL services between the two cities.
Four other carriers - Scoot, AirAsia, Malindo Air and Malaysia Airlines - will also operate VTL flights between both cities.
A director of a tech company, who wanted to be known only as Mr Goh, 40, was on board SQ108 to Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
The Malaysian, who was visiting his family in Malaysia, said he had no issues checking in and going through immigration at Changi Airport.
But he was frustrated by the long waiting times in Kuala Lumpur.
"I paid for the one-hour express polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Covid-19 swab test but ended up waiting for two hours and 40 minutes," said Mr Goh.
"I was very frustrated... They couldn't give us an answer and just kept asking us to wait."
The express service, which costs RM370 ($119), was touted as being able to produce results in an hour, compared with the standard PCR test, which costs RM250, with results expected in three hours.
Mr Goh said passengers had to wait in the transit area of the airport. After receiving a negative PCR test result, he was then able to proceed to clear immigration. He had to wait 45 minutes for his turn, owing to long queues at immigration.
In total, he said he took about four hours to leave the airport after touching down.
There are now 18 countries from which vaccinated travellers can enter Singapore without quarantine, following the launch of the new VTLs on Monday.
VTLs for six other countries - Thailand, Cambodia, Fiji, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Turkey - will start around the middle of December.
But three other planned VTLs for Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been postponed indefinitely as a precautionary measure to reduce the risks of importing the Omicron variant to Singapore.
The variant, which has many more mutations than the Delta Covid-19 variant, has sparked concerns among health authorities worldwide.
SIA said in a Facebook post on Monday that it will no longer operate designated VTL flights from Dubai following news of the deferred VTL with UAE.
SIA and Scoot have also canned plans to operate VTL services from Phuket and Chiang Mai respectively due to regulatory reasons.
Mr Mayur Patel, head of Asia at flight data and analytics provider OAG Aviation, said worries about the potential threat of the Omicron variant will likely limit the impact of the new VTLs.
He noted that the regional VTLs for Kuala Lumpur, Indonesia and India may continue to see demand from domestic workers as well as visiting friends and relatives.
"But with the new variant and increases in cases in Europe, I do not anticipate significant traffic materialising as travellers calibrate risks from the new strain from long-haul markets," said Mr Patel.
"Some regional markets such as Japan are already shutting their borders to international travel so you can expect to see more in Asia-Pacific over the coming days."