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Last-minute pause in air travel bubble will inspire trust and confidence

A flight each from Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific were originally planned to take off at 10am, carrying a maximum of 200 passengers per way.

PUTTING the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble on hold at the eleventh hour has no doubt caused disappointment and frustration. It was, however, a wise move that will inspire trust and confidence in the bilateral quarantine-free travel arrangement between the two Asian hubs.

Less than 24 hours before the scheduled, much-anticipated launch of the travel bubble on Nov 22, both Singapore and Hong Kong decided to defer it due to a recent spike in novel coronavirus cases in the Chinese city.

A flight each from Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific were originally planned to take off at 10am, carrying a maximum of 200 passengers per way - and the hopes of the aviation industry that the travel bubble would be a success for others to emulate during the pandemic.

Hence, it must have been a difficult decision by the respective governments to suspend the bubble at the last minute, given the efforts to get what may well be the world's first quarantine-free international travel arrangement off the ground.

Preparations to mark the historic moment included a send-off for the inaugural designated SIA flight, and a water cannon salute ceremony (and reportedly a lion dance performance as well) for the inbound Cathay Pacific plane. Cathay Pacific passengers were also to be treated to a glimpse of the Jewel Changi Airport as part of the welcome reception.

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Frustration and disappointment were understandable, and these emotions would be felt not only by the travellers who would have paid for and taken the intrusive polymerase chain reaction test - a requirement of the bilateral agreement - but also all the parties involved, possibly down to the kitchen staff who would have prepared all the ingredients for the inaugural flight meals.

However, there was also a palpable sense of relief in some quarters, knowing that the governments would not hesitate to do the right thing - to protect the health of the travellers and residents.

The air travel bubble arrangement has provided for a two-week pause if the seven-day moving average of the daily number of unlinked novel coronavirus cases is more than five in either city. If the moving-average on the last day of the suspension period is five or fewer, the quarantine-free travel will resume.

Singapore's Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung had said on Saturday morning that the flights would proceed as scheduled on Nov 22. The mechanism is such that when a certain threshold is breached, travel would be suspended with a 48-hour notice so that travellers are not stranded.

He noted there was a high chance of the arrangement being suspended shortly after the launch, should there be more than 22 unlinked cases in the Chinese special administrative region over the following three days.

The city reported 43 cases on Saturday, the most in three months. The number included 13 locally transmitted infections whose source was untraceable.

Both governments apparently decided to err on the side of caution and put the brakes on the launch, nonetheless. This shows a conservative and cautious approach on both sides.

Under any other circumstances, to have kicked off the travel bubble and then suspended it soon after would undermine confidence in the arrangement, which set out to be the model to re-ignite much-needed international travel for the sake of hundreds of thousands of aviation workers whose livelihoods are at stake.

Passengers on the first flights would feel a sense of uncertainty too, not knowing if they should still proceed with the journey because their return trip might be affected by suspension.

But it would have been worse if the rush to launch the travel bubble under unsafe circumstances led to cross infection in Singapore, which reported zero local transmission for the 12th day in a row on Sunday.

Travelling during the pandemic entails trust that all parties would act responsibly. Only then would civil aviation be able to resume safely before vaccines become widely available.

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