SINGAPORE, Nov 12 — Since the vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) allowing quarantine-free travel kicked off in September, Singapore Airlines (SIA) has received more than 120,000 bookings on its VTL flights, and it is taking steps to ramp up capacity to meet an expected boom in demand in the coming months.

Passenger volume for the carrier has increased to 37 per cent of pre-Covid levels and that figure is expected to increase to 43 per cent by next month, Singapore Airlines chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong said at the airline’s half-year performance results briefing today.

Nearly 80 per cent of its fleet will be active in November, where 135 SIA and Scoot aircraft will be deployed, and about nine in 10 of its flight crew have been activated.

The airline’s briefing comes a day after its second quarter results on Thursday.

SIA reported a net loss of S$427.6 million for the quarter ending Sept 30, down from the record S$2.34 billion loss a year earlier, when Covid-19 restrictions hammered air travel and the airline took large impairment charges on older planes.

Revenue also doubled in the second quarter to S$1.53 billion due to strong cargo demand and a four-fold rise in passenger numbers from a very low base, the airline said.

It added that market conditions were improving after it reported a narrower second-quarter loss due to cost-cutting efforts, record cargo revenue and an improvement in passenger numbers.

An air of optimism

With the VTLs up and running, the airline is optimistic that it will result in a comeback for passenger capacity, said Mr Goh.

“At the level we are operating now, which is 37 per cent of pre-Covid capacity, going up to 43 per cent in December, we are quite comfortable with this return rate,” he said.

He also expects the airline to fly to 53 per cent of its pre-Covid destinations by next month.

While Singapore had experimented to revive air travel with the scuppered Hong Kong-Singapore Air Travel Bubble and reciprocal green lanes, none of these took off “in a significant manner”, said Mr Goh.

“VTLs are really the one (initiative) that has brought about a meaningful increase in traffic,” he added.

“And this shows how important it is to have a bilateral quarantine-free travel arrangement for our travellers.”

The VTL was first launched for Germany and Brunei on Sept 8 and then expanded to Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States of America on Oct 19, and for Australia and Switzerland on Nov 8.

The VTL with South Korea will be launched on Nov 15, while VTLs between Malaysia, Finland and Sweden will be launched on Nov 29, increasing the daily quota for VTL arrivals from 4,000 to 6,000 travellers.

Mr Goh added that 92 per cent of pilots and 86 per cent of cabin crew have so far been activated to meet this increasing demand, with most deployed on at least one flight per month.

Remaining crew who are still inactive and deployed to other parts of the organisation, or had opted for voluntary no pay leave, are expected to gradually return to work, said Mr Goh.

Weathering circumstances outside the airline’s control

As to what to expect in the longer term, Mr Goh said that given the uncertainty of the Covid-19 situation, the organisation has to be “very agile, very nimble” such that it can “react at very short notice”.

Stressing that while the airline has made progress, many circumstances are outside the airline’s control, he said.

For instance, China’s ongoing zero-tolerance Covid-19 approach would mean that VTLs with them would be untenable for the foreseeable future.

“China has a very strict operating limit for carriers from any country at the moment, so there isn’t much we can do about that,” said Mr Goh.

“However, we are seeing that many other countries are recognising higher vaccination rates, and the need to stimulate and ensure that economic activities continue, that there is a need to open up borders… we are quite confident that as that happens, we will be in a position to tap that.”

China had been Singapore’s top market in 2019, with 3.6 million visitors spending S$3.2 billion here in the first three quarters that financial year, before the pandemic struck.

Another example raised by the airline leadership on events beyond their control was VTL country Denmark’s recent imposition of quarantine for travellers from Singapore.

Mr Lee Lik Hsin, executive vice-president for commercial at SIA, said that while the airline is keeping a close watch on the developing situation, he is optimistic that Covid-19 measures down the line need not impact passenger demand.

“Some (countries) may, for example, choose to put in place testing if there was no testing previously,” he said.

On the vaccination figures of SIA crew, Mr Goh announced that as of Nov 1, all SIA flights will be operated by fully vaccinated crew, and that for Scoot flights, which is under the SIA Group, all its crew will be fully vaccinated by December.

SIA had announced in August that its Singapore-based front-line employees were required to be fully vaccinated by Sept 1. — TODAY