Big jump in regional air travel poses challenges

The number of air passengers within South-east Asia has tripled over the past decade and it is expected to keep growing at a healthy clip for at least the next 20 years.

But even as he pointed to the increasingly busy skies, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan also highlighted the challenges that come with such growth - including the need for air navigation service providers to ensure safety as more people fly.

Mr Khaw, who is also Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure, was addressing airline chiefs, government officials and other industry players at the opening of the Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit yesterday.

Air traffic controllers from different countries should work closely across national borders to manage the skies safely and efficiently, said Mr Khaw. "Collaborative decision-making in air traffic management will soon be implemented between major city pairs, such as between Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong," he added.

The need for such tie-ups is growing. Within ASEAN, the rise of low-cost carriers had seen passenger numbers triple and air links grow by 40 per cent over the past decade.

Demand for air travel in ASEAN could grow at 6.5 per cent annually over the next 20 years, or even higher if plans for open skies within ASEAN take off.

"Governments need to play a firm regulatory role to ensure that safety is not compromised even as more people and airlines take to the skies," said Mr Khaw.

This includes pushing for airspace integration and - in the light of recent tragic air accidents - never allowing safety to be compromised. "We must have resolve to make the hard decisions, in the interests of aviation safety first and foremost," said Mr Khaw.

He also said that the push for liberalising air services should continue, and ASEAN and the European Union were looking at an agreement to allow airlines from both sides easier access to each other.

Within ASEAN , the ultimate aim is open skies which will allow airlines from member states to fly freely within the bloc.

But much work remains to be done on this, analysts said.

For example, Indonesia has yet to ratify a deal which was to have been sealed at the end of last year, to allow ASEAN airlines free access into Indonesian points.

Aviation law professor Alan Tan of the National University of Singapore, who has been following the developments closely, told The Straits Times: "I look forward to Indonesia accepting this final piece of the puzzle soon in order to jump-start the ASEAN single market."

This article was first published on Feb 16, 2016.
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