Meet Me In Singapore - Operating In Asia During COVID (Part 3)

Credit: Swapnil Bapat on Unsplash

This is the third part of a three-part series of Operating Into Asia In The Time Of COVID. Take a look at part one and part two.

Singapore, the 40-sm-wide island planted nearly on the equator at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, vies with Hong Kong as the premier financial center in Asia.

It was hit hard by the COVID-19 virus with 26,000 cases, among the largest number of infections of any Asian country, attributed mostly to foreign workers on the island living in crowded dormitories. In response, the government cracked down, imposing strict penalties for not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing, or breaking quarantine or curfew. 

Just how seriously the government that has banned chewing gum and The Wall Street Journal from the island takes these sanctions was discovered in May 2020 by a FedEx captain who broke curfew, left his quarantine hotel to shop for masks and sanitization supplies, and was caught, fined $7,000, and jailed for four weeks. He and his two first officers had been forced to undergo a 14-day quarantine because their duty assignment had taken them through China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan and Australia during the previous two weeks.

Pat Dunn, who lived in Singapore when he captained a Gulfstream out of Seletar Airport, compared the pandemic restrictions at the city-state to those of China. “They are talking about opening up, but so far, nothing is, and you still have to quarantine for 14 days coming in,” he says. “I have a friend based there with a Global 5000 who is flying a little but not much; he goes to China maybe a trip a month. His operation also has a facility in Indonesia with a G650 based there. I’m hearing there is not a lot of cross-border flying there.”

Reportedly, Singapore is in discussion with Australia about forming a “travel bubble” between the two nations that would avoid quarantining. Also, according to Julie Ambrose, director of aviation at ASA Group, Singapore just launched its “Connect @ Changi” policy that will allow eligible passengers to fly into Changi International Airport, go to a designated hotel, and meet with other people who have also flown in to conduct business. 

“If you have people based there, they can meet with you, too--however, only with a Plexiglas barrier separation [as in most public places in the U.S.]. Maximum stay is 14 days,” Ambrose says. (Visit for more information.)

In Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is another good option for crew-only RONs where they can stay for up to 48 hr. at designated hotels without a PCR test. Dunn says that while Malaysia has been locked down during the pandemic, “it is slowly opening up but still with curfews,” and some internal operations are possible. “You can get a permit to enter, but you still will have to quarantine.”

Persistent ‘Bottlenecks’ 

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has been a challenge to aviation operations in Asia, as it has everywhere else in the world, but Jeffrey Chiang, AsBAA chief operating officer, believes that while the pandemic will pass, a preexisting problem remains in Asia.
“The infrastructure bottlenecks that existed before the pandemic are still the primary challenge to the growth of business and general aviation in the region,” he says. “Last year, when countries started closing their borders and airlines were canceling or reducing scheduled services, business aviation stepped up to assist in bringing back--or repatriating--stranded passengers.”

The AsBAA is assuming that this surge of interest in business aviation by new users who chose it, despite its cost, as the only option to leave or return to their countries will continue. 

“Moving forward,” Chiang says, “it is expected this will create a new demand for both business aviation charter and ownership, especially when taking into account the security, safety--from the point of view of health risks and number of contact points vis-à-vis commercial airlines--and convenience of business aviation over commercial airlines. Prices may not be as astronomical as many people think they are, especially when traveling in large groups. People now see the value of business aviation, especially when it comes to cases of limited service between cities due to reduced airline routes and frequency.”

Noting that Cathay Pacific has placed 44% of its fleet in long-term storage as a result of the pandemic and precipitous downturn in service, Chiang speculates that until the commercial carriers return to full capacity, people will see the attractiveness of business aviation, especially for group travel. “When it comes to access, there is little choice but to use the major international airports [because in most Asian cities there are no reliever or general aviation airports], and the ground handling charges tend to be more expensive, on average, than in the U.S. and Europe.

“Because of the infrastructure challenges and the fact that we are sharing these busy international airports with commercial and cargo airlines,” he continued, “this affects slots that business aviation can use, and because of the pre-COVID congestion, that limits parking for business jets and how long they can stay at a particular location. These are all infrastructure issues Asia has been grappling with for some time.”

In the meantime, as the pernicious COVID-19 virus continues to circulate around the world, Julie Ambrose advises business aviation operators intent on flying into Asia to “be prepared for changes that occur every day. We want everything to open up. We are prepared. We want flights. Check with your handler and/or trip support company for the latest rules and restrictions for your proposed flight.”

Final Thoughts: Maintaining the Right Balance

To go or not to go, that is the question (paraphrased) not just for Shakespeare’s melancholy prince but for business aviation operators contemplating trips into the heart of Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aljoscha Subasinghe at Asia Flight Services in Bangkok has a thoughtfully crafted answer for them: “From my point of view, it is important to strike the right balance between caution and movement. Don’t paint with a broad brush--there are no harmonized regs, so you have to be mindful of that. We want to support the industry as much as we can, and we are pushing for the opening of borders and welcoming international flights back as soon as feasible. We hope that the regulators realize the advantages of business aviation in terms of not only helping economies but the COVID response, as well, keeping passengers safe and flying routes that are not being served commercially now. We are very hopeful and optimistic for the rest of the year.”

An Advocate: AsBAA in the Time of COVID

As business aviation continues its growth in Asia, its advocacy group, the Asian Business Aviation Association (AsBAA), is maturing along with it. An international partner of the U.S. NBAA, the AsBAA currently boasts more than 140 members and a professional staff with offices in Hong Kong.

“Now that there is a full-time executive team,” Jeffrey Chiang, AsBAA chief operating officer, told BCA, “we hope to take the Association to new heights. COVID-19 has been tough on our industry, but in light of the pandemic and inability to travel and meet physically, we have created more online initiatives like last year’s AsBAA Virtual Safety Summit 2020. This was the Association’s first time organizing such an online event, and it was a huge success.”

The AsBAA continues to engage with its members through webinars and other virtual events focusing on aircrew mental health, aviation safety and a host of other topics. 

“So while most of our members are still unable to meet physically,” Chiang continues, “we are still keeping members engaged with virtual offerings until quarantine-free travel and physical gatherings are possible again. In places like China, where physical gatherings have somewhat resumed, we have been able to organize our in-person Safety Day event for the aviation community.”

Externally, the AsBAA continues to engage with governments and relevant stakeholders to push its agenda forward in the region because, Chiang says, “Long term, we see a lot of growth in Asia that could truly show the true benefits of business and general aviation and how it helps the regional economies.”

This is the final part of a three-part series. You can take a look at part one and part two here.