Cautious border policy among green countries for air travel recovery

The RGL scheme with Singapore should be adopted as basis for extending the scheme to other green countries based on the experience with Singapore.

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Published by Malay Mail & Free Malaysia Today, image from Malay Mail.

After the gradual ease of lockdown and travel regulations, air travel industry in Malaysia now could further recapture their international flights to green countries destinations with the help of government initiative through the Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) arrangement.

It is clear that Covid-19 and the early measures applied in Malaysia have heavily affected tourism and air travel sector. Malaysia used to have 4.58 million tourist arrivals from the Asean region in the first quarter of 2019, and now it has reduced by 37.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 according to Tourism Malaysia.

Based on the data from Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB), there is a vast decline in passenger movements by 60.6 per cent with 26.9 million passengers in the first half of 2020 – international and domestic sectors contracted by 63.5 per cent and 57.8 per cent, respectively.

As a result, one of Malaysia’s famous budget carriers, AirAsia Group Bhd suffered a net loss of RM992.89 million in its second quarter in 2020.

Nevertheless, the RGL travel scheme introduced by Malaysia and Singapore could be the beginning of the air transport sector recovery.

RGL is one of two travel schemes introduced by Malaysia and Singapore for business and official purposes between both countries starting from August 17 considering both countries are green zone countries.

Another travel scheme is Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) but this does not involve air travel.

Unlike the usual business trip, RGL scheme requires the person to stay in the country of departure for at least two weeks before they could travel. They also need to download and use tracking app during the period of stay and tested negative in Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test.

Because RGL scheme allows travel via air transport and has short term period of stay – a person is only allowed to keep to their travel itineraries of not more than 14 days which must be submitted earlier to the authority.

This is a win-win situation as the incubation period of the virus is generally accepted to be 14 days – that is a person tested negative on arrival is likely not to have been infected after 14 days.

Moreover, it become good news for air transport companies since they can be assured that a person will have to book a return ticket within 14 days.

In addition, the strict regulation under RGL scheme could preserve the status of green zone countries. Currently, some countries are considered green zone due to the low spread of Covid-19 in the respective countries.

So far, Malaysia through its Director General of Health Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has considered six countries as green zones – Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. As of now, Malaysia has established RGL with Singapore only on a cautious basis.

Cautious because the air travel route between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore is said to be one of the busiest in the world. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of flights in this travel route is 30,187 flights annually according to OAG Aviation. Under the RGL, this is limited to 400 people per week.

Since green countries is considered as safe countries in terms of Covid-19 spread, it means it could be a safe travel destination. The RGL scheme with Singapore should be adopted as basis for extending the scheme to other green countries based on the experience with Singapore.

If the experience with Singapore proves successful, then the government should reopen the border and establish other RGL agreements with the rest of green countries, also on a cautious basis, as it will give the air travel industry a chance to grab the opportunity to recapture their international flight and improve their financial position.

The faster Malaysia reopens the border for green zone countries, the faster air travel industry will recover. A successful RGL scheme with other green countries will also help to revive the “Visit Malaysia 2020” campaign.

To further promote this RGL scheme and attract the tourists back, the government should ensure green countries will ensure the safety of the trip.

A close monitoring of all the green countries in term of their handling and management of Covid-19 pandemic should be carefully made before any RGL agreement is made with them.

Even after an agreement on the RGL scheme is agreed upon with any green countries, this monitoring should be continued. The idea is if the Covid-19 situation in these countries deteriorates, the RGL scheme must be suspended.

We should also be magnanimous enough to suspend it unilaterally if the Covid-19 situation in our country deteriorates.

In the meantime, during this pandemic era, it is obvious that air transport companies have less passengers. Air travel companies should take advantage of this near pause in operation by being proactive in anticipating the future under the post Covid-19 era by going digital.

One good example is the partnership between AirAsia and Agoda – one of the fastest growing online travel booking platforms – where the aim is to capture a bigger market in South-east Asia. Through this kind of partnership, both companies could have the benefit from their partner’s customers and therefore speed up their recovery in the future.

Although experts said the pandemic could last from 12 months to 18 months with last November as the starting point, which means as pointed out correctly by the Minister of Tourism Nancy Shukri that international tourism of Malaysia may be in the doldrums until June 2021, we don’t have to wait until June to come out with schemes that will help the air travel industry like the RGL, albeit in a cautious manner.

Jamari Mohtar and Muhammad Rasyid Abdurrahman are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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