Aviation industry readies for rebound as carriers resume mid, long-haul flights

An Asiana Airlines official welcomes passengers on a flight bound for Hawaii, one of the first long-haul routes to resume, at Incheon Airport, Sunday. Asiana Airlines

South Korea’s aviation industry is gearing up for a full recovery of operations that were hit hard from the prolonged pandemic for more than two years as the flights resume along long-stalled mid- and long-haul routes.

The Transport Ministry aims to increase the number of international flights this year to the 50 percent level of 2019. As of March, the number of international flights departing the country was at 406 per week, around 8.8 percent of the corresponding figure in 2019 when the number of international flights stood at 4,770.

From March 21, South Korean nationals who are vaccinated are exempted from self-quarantine when they return to the country from overseas travel. From April 1, foreign visitors are also exempted from quarantine regardless of their vaccination history. Considering the portion of those arriving from abroad among people confirmed with COVID-19 is at 0.01 to 0.04 percent, some industry insiders say the government’s quarantine exemption rule will boost the overall travel volume.

Pinning high hopes on a real return to normalcy this time, air carriers said resumption of long-distance flight services as well as downward trend of international oil price will boost travel demand here. On Friday, the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) benchmark for US crude closed at $99.27 per barrel, going below $100 for the first time in more than two weeks.

Amid growing expectations, Asiana Airlines said Monday that it has resumed one of its lucrative Incheon-Hawaii routes after a 25-month hiatus, the first long-distance flight to reopen since the government’s eased self-quarantine rules upon arrival from Mar. 21. Asiana said it would operate the route three times a week.

According to Asiana Airlines, its first flight of its Incheon-Hawaii route on Sunday evening recorded a boarding rate of 80 percent, mostly comprising newlyweds and families on holiday. Bookings have also more than doubled following the government’s new quarantine rule, it added.

Another flagship carrier, Korean Air, said it has expanded routes to Japan and Singapore this week.

On expectations of a full recovery, Korean Air shares gained 2.4 percent at 31,950 won, while other low cost carriers Jeju Air, T’way Air and Jin Air increased 6.46 percent, 5.56 percent and 5.53 percent compared to the previous day. Asiana Airlines and its budget carrier brand Air Busan rose 1.32 percent and 1.69 percent, respectively.

Insiders have been urging the government to speed up resumption of passenger flight operations, citing the case in the US of flight reservation volume recovering the pre-pandemic levels.

“The bottom line is that the Transport Ministry wants to keep up Korea’s aviation service competitiveness. If Korean’s flagship carriers do not operate international flights, other major US and European air carriers can steal the Korean operators’ slots at international airports,” an aviation industry official said.

But some argue that it is too early to reopen long-haul flights or increase outbound flights at a time when some cities still require self-quarantine upon arrival, and fear of the spread of COVID-19 variants can still lead to suspensions of operations, for instance in Hong Kong.

On Monday, Korean Air said it would suspend the Incheon-Hong Kong route for a week after three passengers were confirmed with COVID-19, in compliance with Hong Kong authorities.

“The number of inbound passengers will not dramatically increase even when air carriers resume their long-distance flights, as confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to increase here and there,” an industry insider said.

“We’re closely watching the situation with more care this time, because the previous delta variant and omicron variant has knocked back ticket sales and revenue.”

By Kim Da-sol (ddd@heraldcorp.com)

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