Private pilots cautious about flying over Malaysia amid Covid-19 pandemic

Republic of Singapore Flying Club president Lingam Paspathy remains worried about the long-term future of the local general aviation community. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Private pilots at the two of the local flying clubs here have been more cautious about flying over Malaysia amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but are even more careful now after an incident last month when two Singaporean pilots performed an emergency landing on a Johor highway.

The Republic of Singapore Flying Club (RSFC), which has about 20 members, said it has advised members not to fly into Malaysia since the beginning of the pandemic, even before the Nov 22 incident.

Meanwhile, the Seletar Flying Club, which has about 50 members, said flights to Malaysia have been cut down significantly. They do so only when this is needed to help them maintain their navigation skills or to clock cross-country flying hours, both of which are not possible in Singapore due to its airspace limitations.

Recreational flying for visits has stopped. Prior to the pandemic, private pilots had often flown from Seletar Airport to parts of Malaysia - such as Melaka - where they would land and spend some time there.

But with Covid-19 restrictions on social visits in place in both Singapore and Malaysia, this is no longer an option. Those who still fly there after approval from the Malaysian authorities would mostly execute touch-and-go landings at the airports there.

Mr Lingam Paspathy, president of the RSFC, said it is waiting for the investigations into the Nov 22 emergency landing incident to be completed to see if there are any rule changes by the authorities.

Since the onset of the pandemic, RSFC have told the club's members to avoid flying into Malaysian airspace to avoid falling afoul of any Covid-19 restrictions should there be a forced landing.

Mr Jezreel Mok, general manager of Seletar Flying Club and a full-time instructor, said: "We have significantly cut down on flights to Malaysia since the Covid-19 pandemic started.

"Most private pilots joined the club to get the chance to fly and travel around the region, but they have stopped flying since due to the Covid-19 restrictions."

While both clubs have adjusted to the Covid-19 changes, Mr Lingam remains worried about the long-term future of the local general aviation community.

He said some costs have multiplied compared to about a decade ago.

For example, parking charges are now $750 monthly, up from $75 previously. The fees for touch-and-go landings at Seletar Airport - where a plane briefly lands on a runway before taking off again - now cost $35 per landing, up from $2.20 in the past, he said.

Meanwhile, the annual maintenance cost to meet regulatory requirements for a Singapore-registered plane has increased to up to $120,000 a year, up from about $80,000 in the past, he added.

A session with his club's plane would now cost about $700 per hour, in order to cover the club's cost. This is on top of the monthly membership fees required to cover administrative charges.

"The objective of the flying club is to make flying affordable to the public. This allows anybody who can't join the air force or to buy their own plane to achieve their dreams to fly," said Mr Lingam.

But the rising costs "have made flying unaffordable".

As a result, membership at his club has been gradually falling over the years. Some private pilots have also opted to learn flying overseas, such as in Malaysia or in the US.

Some have also turned to alternatives like FlightSchool.sg, which prepares students for private pilot licence tests in the US. Its founder Fabian Lim said it has been getting about 30 to 40 students a year.

Mr Mok, who agreed that costs have been rising for local flying clubs, said it is a challenging period.

"We'll have to constantly work with regulators and partners to ensure policies and regulations remain inclusive and the interests of the community are met.

"This will let Singaporeans continue to have the opportunity to pursue aviation in Singapore, without having to go overseas."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.