Operating Into The Mekong Region During COVID (Part 2)

Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

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

Before the pandemic, the Mekong Region was on its way to becoming an economic powerhouse in Asia and an increasingly popular destination for business aviation. 

“We used to call it the Indochina Region, but that was a name from the colonial period,” says Aljoscha Subasinghe, business development manager for Asia Flight Services. The region was named for the Mekong River, which flows south from its origins on the Tibetan Plateau, forming the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and southwestern China. 

“Given that,” Subasinghe says of its economic strength, “we expect business aviation to grow as well, as [air] traffic tracks economic growth quite closely. Compared to other areas of the world, we are starting off from a much smaller base, so we have a marginal level of traffic at the moment, most of which originates from outside the region--East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America--either bringing people into the region or flying them out.”

During the (pre-COVID) “Before Times,” the Mekong Region itself was seeing an increase in local citizens making use of private aviation for their business and personal travel. This was a hopeful sign, Subasinghe believes, as it was indicative of an emerging middle class that was beginning to understand the usefulness of business aviation. 

“We know the local demand will increase,” he says. “With the pandemic, most of the commercial links have been shut off and are slow in being reinstated. The airlines are maintaining a basic level of activity between the major hubs, but there are plenty of locations that are not being served at all, and travelers would have no other choice but to fly privately. Out of this comes the benefit of avoiding crowds and not exposing yourself to an increased number of people.”

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns also saw an uptick in passenger repatriation flights, both into and out of the region. Another benefit of using private aviation, Subasinghe notes, is that operators can assist their passengers with the increased documentation they need during the pandemic so flights can be approved and passengers allowed in. 

“These rules change a lot, as well,” he says, “so it’s important to have someone on the ground to provide that information.” He cited a list of required items: embassy-issued visas, quarantine hotels and confirmation of how passengers will be transferred to and from them, required certificates from medical professionals that passengers are fit to travel, health insurance certificates with sufficient coverage including COVID-19 treatment, and, in most cases, a negative PCR test within 72 hr. of departure time.

Cambodia, for example, requires a $2,000 deposit for certain travelers (based on visa type), which is returned to passengers after they complete their quarantines--sans the cost of the mandatory post-arrival COVID tests, which is deducted. Thailand requires that the health insurance policy provides $100,000 coverage, be valid for the duration of the stay, and verifies that COVID-19 treatment is included.

A Haven for Crew Rest

But here’s some good news for flight crews heading into Cambodia: The government has drawn a distinction between passengers and crew so the latter can obtain visas upon arrival along with their COVID-19 tests. However, at the quarantine hotel, they can depart as soon as their tests show negative, avoiding the full 14-day quarantine period. On the other hand, passengers have to quarantine for the full 14 days. 

“This is very useful because it is one of the few places in the region where operators could get mandatory crew rest, as many countries will not allow crew to overnight without a full quarantine,”  Subasinghe said. Vietnam and Laos will not allow crew in without a visa; Thailand will, but for the most part, only if they are picking up or dropping passengers. Thus, Cambodia has now become a popular crew rest and tech stop for the region.” Julie Ambrose, director of aviation at ASA Group, adds that Cambodia is also an option for private-to-international commercial transfers with prior approval and notification.

Passengers can expect that in some countries, such as Thailand, a mobile app will be required to track their movements to ensure they abide by the isolation rules. 

“The rules are changing all the time,” Subasinghe says, “so operators should stay up to date with the entry restrictions of their destinations. Having a strong ground-handling agent is very useful, otherwise, operators or passengers would have to organize these things themselves.”

Does having been inoculated with a recognized COVID-19 vaccine carry any “cred” in allowing easier access to any Asian countries? “We are waiting to see when Thailand will allow visitors as long as they have been vaccinated,” Ambrose says. “The COVID advisory board [CCSA, or the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration] was scheduled to meet the first week of April. Flights are approved on a case-by-case basis. They have identified 11 categories of visitors who can enter and what visas are required if they fulfill the criteria or if they have a long-term visa. Some crews can remain overnight depending on the situation [e.g., duty time]. Check to see if the authorities will allow the flight if based on one of the categories.”

Sadly, since the military coup d’état in Myanmar (Burma) and subsequent pushback from the supporters of deposed President Aung San Suu Kiy, the stability of the country continues to deteriorate. Subasinghe characterizes this as “a shame because the country has been getting more investment over recent years, and we’ve seen aviation markets improve there, but under the current situation, investors will think twice.” 

However, even today, he points out, it is still possible to operate into Myanmar, but, understandably, a lot of restrictions and limitations abound--for example, there is no crew entry unless the operator has a diplomatic exemption. Fuel is very limited, and in some cases unavailable, due to strikes. “We have offices that are operating there and we are watching how the situation develops,” Subasinghe says.

But the star of the Mekong Region right now is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, another communist nation that has wrapped itself around an increasingly capitalist economy--one of its biggest customers and investors being its former wartime enemy, the U.S. 

“Vietnam has experienced the most impressive economic growth of all of Southeast Asia,” Subasinghe says. It has also enjoyed success in controlling COVID-19, much like the nations of Iceland and New Zealand, by moving quickly to close its borders and establishing quarantines and testing procedures. 

And while business aviation operators can fly into the country, according to Ambrose, “It is easier if you have a local sponsor or holdings in the country. The majority of flights to Vietnam we handle are U.S. or European business aviation operators that have holdings there--as long as they meet the entry criteria, they can come in. Check with trip support or local handlers, and ask for the latest rules.”

This is the second part of a three-part series of Operating Into Asia In The Time Of COVID. Read part three now.