Asean Carriers Prepare for Post-pandemic Rebound

 - January 23, 2023, 7:45 AM
A Cebu Pacific Airbus A330neo sits on display at the 2022 Singapore Airshow. The Philippines carrier expects to take delivery of four of the widebodies this year. (Photo: Airbus)

With Covid entry restrictions lifted and China’s scrapping of travel bans, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean) is rebuilding air connectivity for some 665 million inhabitants.

This month has seen Royal Brunei Airlines restore service to the Taiwanese capital Taipei with twice-weekly passenger service using an Airbus A320neo aircraft after suspending the route in March 2020. As the smallest Asean member, Brunei’s flight movements and passenger traffic is relatively modest; it recorded 4,732 flights and 375,417 travelers from January to October 2022, compared with 2,135 and 36,107 respectively, for the same 2021 period.

Cambodia’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) inked its fourth airport project on Thursday after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a local conglomerate, the Royal Group, for a $300 million 4C-class airport in Sihanoukville’s Koh Rong Island. On the airline front, the AirAsia Aviation Group enters a new era with the planned 2023 launch of AirAsia Cambodia - a joint venture with Phnom Penh-based firm Sivilai Asia. Meanwhile, local carrier Lanmei Airlines recently acquired a new $10 million Airbus A320 simulator from Canada’s CAE to boost its pilot and maintenance training programs.

National carrier Lao Airlines is eying Chinese traffic with plans to add weekly flights from its capital Vientiane to five destinations—Guangzhou, Shanghai, Chengdu, Changzhou, and Hangzhou—starting in February and March. The government and Korea Airports Corporation plan to sign a public-private partnership to modernize Luang Prabang International Airport.

Indonesia’s Jakarta Soekarno Hatta International Airport became the busiest airport in Southeast Asia this month with 3 million passenger seats while private carrier Lion Air reigns as the region’s biggest operator with 3.2 million seats, according to data consultancy OAG. The Lion Group, which includes six airlines, will add around 80 new aircraft in 2023.

Meanwhile, a new government initiative aims to develop Indonesia into a producer of flight simulators and a leading manufacturer of cargo drones and twin-engine turboprops with a capacity of fewer than 100 seats. Last November, state-owned aircraft manufacturer PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) amassed an $80.5 million order from a local firm for 11 of its N219 multi-purpose utility turboprops. PTDI expects to secure another order for 10 examples from the Indonesian Armed Forces and orders for three amphibious versions for Riau Archipelago in 2023.

In anticipation of the Lunar New Year holidays, the Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM) has approved 291 additional domestic flights between January 18 and 31, representing a 33.5 percent increase compared with the 2022 period.  The regulator said it expects 2023 passenger traffic to grow by 40- to 52 percent year-over-year as local carriers look to restore capacity and increase frequency to Asia-Pacific and Middle East destinations. Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines plans to take delivery of 25 Boeing 737 Max 8s from 2023 through to 2026.

Against the backdrop of civil unrest and armed conflict, Myanmar Airways International has expanded in phases, adding flights to neighboring cities including Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Phuket, and Phnom Penh. Myanmar is open to travelers showing proof of vaccination.

This month saw Cebu Pacific take delivery of its ninth Airbus A320neo, the first of 10 deliveries planned this year. Plans call for two additional A320neos, three A321neos, and four A330neos. Local airlines will cut fuel surcharges come February and restore all routes by year-end. Meanwhile, talks surrounding the privatization of Manila airport continue as officials probe its air traffic management system after it abruptly closed New Year’s morning over a faulty circuit breaker.

The Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group, which swung to profit in the first half and second quarter of FY2022/23 is enjoying robust growth, with passenger capacity reaching 80 percent of pre-Covid levels in December 2022 thanks to the easing of restrictions in key East Asian markets. Between Singapore Airlines and budget subsidiary Scoot, SIA posted an 89.7 percent load factor—its highest ever—in the same month. With Changi Airport fully opened, Singapore’s gateway now sits at 80 percent of pre-pandemic capacity while air connectivity reached 82 percent in early December.

On January 18, Thailand saw its first direct flights from China in almost three years after Juneyao Air and Spring Airlines relaunched service. The country expects up to 10 million Chinese visitors in 2023. Meanwhile, flag carrier Thai Airways aims to pull itself out of bankruptcy protection before 2025 after offloading eight aircraft for $19.5 million and selling non-core assets including one unused engine for $1.8 million.

Finally, Vietnamese carriers have added an additional 9,200 domestic flights with 1.9 million seats between January 1 and February 5 to meet strong demand for flights around the Lunar New Year. The government is now considering plans to revise the tender for Long Thanh International Airport in Dong Nai province amid concerns over the bidding dossier that covered terminal construction. Designed to alleviate traffic from HCMC and expected to become Vietnam’s largest international gateway once complete, the new $14.2 billion airport will serve 25 million passengers and 1.2 million tons of cargo in its first phase, slated to open in 2025. Additional plans call to handle up to 100 passengers and five million tons of cargo annually.