SIA, Scoot crew return to the skies as tentative recovery from Covid-19 continues

About 6,500 cabin crew, or eight in 10, are doing at least one flight a month. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Nine in 10 Singapore Airlines Group pilots and eight in 10 cabin crew are back in the skies, flying at least once a month.

This is a far cry from the hours they were clocking before Covid-19 brought the aviation sector to its knees, but the fact that many are back in their uniforms offers some hope things are slowly but surely recovering.

Analysts, however, stressed that the immediate future will remain gloomy.

About 2,200 pilots - about 90 per cent of the total number - are now flying at least once a month. This comprises pilots from SIA and the group's budget arm Scoot.

About 6,500 cabin crew, or eight in 10, are also doing at least one flight a month.

The SIA Group disclosed the figures to The Straits Times, but did not say what the lowest point was, in terms of active flight crew, citing commercial sensitivities.

In SIA Group's previous update on crew numbers last August, it said then it had more than 3,200 pilots and almost 11,000 cabin crew.

Meanwhile, Jetstar Asia, Singapore's other local airline, said about 50 per cent of its pilots and cabin crew are back at work.

The budget carrier had grounded its entire fleet of 18 Airbus 320s at its lowest point of the pandemic in March last year.

A spokesman for the SIA Group said: "In general, the average number of flying hours for our pilots and cabin crew has been increasing in tandem with the calibrated growth in the SIA Group's passenger capacity."

He added that the frequency of flights for the crew vary from month to month.

The crew members' return to work comes as SIA and Scoot continue to make gradual steps towards recovery.

For example, SIA has resumed its Tokyo-Los Angeles service and started a new Copenhagen-Rome service.

Scoot will resume flights to Berlin via Athens from Aug 10, with three flights weekly. It said the move will let it tap summer holiday demand between Germany and Greece, given that intra-Europe border measures have eased.

But despite these announcements, passenger numbers and flights are still significantly fewer than what they were before the Covid-19 pandemic.

SIA Group is expected to reach about 33 per cent of its pre-Covid-19 passenger capacity by the end of this month, up from 28 per cent last month.

The number of passengers are significantly lower, with the figure in June (133,000) at just 3.8 per cent of the levels it was in December 2019, before Covid-19 struck.

A Jetstar Asia spokesman said that the carrier has resumed flying to nine destinations, which has seen six aircraft reactivated and more crew return to work.

"We (will) continue to review our fleet and crew in response to changing demand," she said.

But analysts have said that airlines in Singapore are unlikely to experience a significant recovery soon.

Borders have remained largely closed and there is no domestic demand for the airlines to fall back on.

Independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie from Sobie Aviation said: "The outlook for the third quarter remains dismal with no increase in traffic from the levels of recent months.

"Passenger traffic is likely to remain at 3 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels until the start of the recovery phase."

Mr Sobie said there could be slight improvements in the fourth quarter if borders start to reopen.

"We are not likely to see a significant increase in traffic until 2022," he added.

One destination that has however given airlines some cause for optimism is the Thai holiday hot spot Phuket.

It has introduced a Phuket sandbox - a model that will allow vaccinated travellers to visit without quarantine.

SIA told ST that it has seen strong interest from some of its key long-haul markets from Europe in its flights to Phuket, but declined to provide specific figures.

It has also increased its Phuket services from twice weekly to twice daily since July 19.

Ms JoAnn Tan, senior vice-president of marketing planning at SIA, said: "The easing of restrictions for vaccinated travellers to Phuket is a welcome sign of optimism for the recovery of international travel."

Jetstar Asia announced this month that it will operate two weekly services from Singapore to Phuket from Sept 3.

Mr Sobie said that the Phuket reopening, while encouraging, will not be significant in boosting SIA Group's and Jetstar Asia's traffic.

Mr Mayur Patel, head of Asia at flight data and analytics provider OAG Aviation, said: "(The sandbox) is just an experiment and cannot be expanded much further."

He added that the problem is not a matter of a lack of demand or airlines being unable to offer flights, but the lack of clarity around long-term plans to open up.

But he said that all three local carriers will recover over time.

"They are well supported and cash reserves are sufficient for the carriers to continue operations," said Mr Patel.

"The fastest to recover should be Jetstar Asia and Scoot since these are essentially low-cost airlines operating to shorter-haul destinations with local market demand... they do not need connecting traffic."

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