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Airfares soar, some flights sell out hours after start date of Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble announced

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Employees walking past signage for Cathay Pacific near the flagship carrier's check-in counters at Hong Kong International Airport on October 20, 2020. ― AFP pic via TODAY
Employees walking past signage for Cathay Pacific near the flagship carrier’s check-in counters at Hong Kong International Airport on October 20, 2020. ― AFP pic via TODAY

SINGAPORE, Nov 12 — The announcement yesterday that all forms of travel between Singapore and Hong Kong will be allowed from November 22 has resulted in a rush to buy flight tickets. 

In a matter of hours, airfares for flights from two designated carriers — Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Cathay Pacific — shot up by more than three times in some cases.

The bilateral arrangement of an air travel bubble between the two cities and the start date was announced at 10am by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

At 11am, a check on the Singapore Airlines’ website showed that it was S$324.50 (RM993.25) for a one-way ticket on November 22 on an SQ890 flight — one of the designated aircraft under the travel bubble arrangement. 

However, a few hours later at 3pm, the airfare for the same route had jumped to S$816.50, and the website indicated that there were four seats left at that price.

At 7pm, the tickets between November 22 and 28 were all fully booked. 

This surge was also observed for Cathay Pacific flights on the airline’s website.

One-way airfares from Singapore to Hong Kong on November 24 for flight CX734 were at S$247 at 11am, but that ballooned to S$906.50 at 6.30pm. 

Under the travel agreement, there will be one flight a day into each city with a maximum of 200 travellers each flight.This will be increased to two flights a day into each city from December 7. 

An SIA spokesperson told TODAY that the airline has “seen an increase in bookings” since yesterday’s announcement, but it is unable to reveal any figures “due to commercial sensitivity”. 

Similarly, a Cathay Pacific spokesperson said that “the response has been very positive” since the announcement. 

“Some flights have only a very limited number of seats left,” it added. 

Why the rush

Several eager travellers interviewed by TODAY said that they had bought their tickets before the prices skyrocketed. 

They may not be paying four-figure airfares, but all of them were still paying about 30 to 50 per cent more than what they normally would for a flight to Hong Kong before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

They also have to foot the costs of taking three Covid-19 tests — one in Singapore and two in Hong Kong — that in total will set each traveller back by about S$330. 

The test costs up to S$200 in Singapore before departure, and HK$499 (S$87) in Hong Kong on arrival and HK$240 before departure.  

For 28-year-old Roy Lee, he does not mind these extra costs, because the air travel bubble has given him the chance to reunite with his girlfriend of two years, whom he has not seen since the end of last year. 

The project manager at a technology firm had booked a flight to Hong Kong to see her in February, but with the Covid-19 outbreak at the time, he had to put his reservation on hold.

It was only yesterday after the announcement that he could re-confirm his booking under the new arrangements.

He will be spending about a month there and has paid about S$600 for a return trip — which is about twice more than the S$300 he would typically pay before the pandemic. 

“In normal circumstances, I don’t think it’s worth it, but just for the sake of meeting her, it would be,” he said.

Why they are willing to pay more

There are also some who are fine with the increased costs because they have been “saving up” due to travel restrictions, and do not mind splurging on a vacation. 

Hendric Tay, who is the co-founder of travel publication The Travel Intern, said that he had “plenty of leave days to clear” and he had been looking for opportunities to take a break from work. 

The 33-year-old was already prepared to foot the extra costs since the Ministry of Transport first announced the travel bubble in October, and it was only a matter of confirming the booking once the start date was confirmed.

“I had already been thinking and asking myself and my friends how much more I would pay for my trip, and I knew my price range would be around S$600 (more),” he said. 

When Tay booked his ticket at about 11am, he said that he managed to snag a return SIA flight for less than S$600. 

While he had planned for the trip to be a personal vacation, he is seeing the potential to tie it in with his work as well.

“Being a content creator, you look out for these opportunities,” he added. 

The chance to mix leisure with work is also why Keisha Sarah Wee, 24, booked a trip.

Having been using the live video streaming platform Twitch since March, she often takes viewers around places in Singapore such as Jewel Changi Airport and the Singapore Zoo.

Wee had originally booked her flight to Hong Kong in January for travel in March this year but was forced to postpone her trip.

“When I heard the news this morning, I immediately called SIA to check if my ticket is still valid and it said I can use it before December 21,” she said.

Now, she is planning to book a five-day trip for the first week of December.

“I’m going for leisure but I would also like to document our first air travel bubble. I’ll be going around Hong Kong to tourist sites, and doing some hiking and trying food.

“I feel happy that I get to create content and share it with my viewers from other parts of the world where they might still be in lockdown.

They do feel that they live vicariously through my video streams sometimes,” she said, adding that most of her viewers are Americans, Australians and Europeans.

What travel agents say

Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications at Dynasty Travel, told TODAY that the travel agency has received enquiries since the air travel bubble was first announced in October.

It then received even more enquiries yesterday, making it a total of about 100 enquiries since October.

The most-often-asked questions have been about the availability of flights, the health screenings that are required and the cost of these tests, she added.

“We have spoken to corporate business travellers and have also received enquiries for leisure travel throughout December as some have expressed their eagerness to celebrate the Christmas season there,” Seah said.

“But I do feel like people are adopting a wait-and-see approach before they book (their flights) because this is something new and there’s a need to understand the criteria and what is necessary for this trip.

“It seems like they’re waiting for more clarity before jumping in.”

While younger working adults are usually inclined to make their own hotel bookings, Seah noted that this group, along with young families, have been engaging the agency’s services.

“I think it’s because we offer an entire package. In a time of uncertainty like this, they might prefer to go through a travel agent for a seamless journey to Hong Kong where they won’t miss out on any of the required steps,” she said.

What travellers should note

Seah, along with other industry partners, attended a webinar conducted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board yesterday afternoon, which highlighted physical distancing measures that travellers to Hong Kong need to know.

Some of the key things to note are:

― Travellers should wear a mask at all times and keep a 1m distance apart from each other

― Group gatherings are restricted to four people

― Dining is limited to six people a table

― Dine-in venues that have a capacity of 75 per cent will stop by 2am

― There will be a maximum 50 per cent capacity for coaches and a 50 per cent capacity at theme parks

― Group tours of not more than 30 persons including staff members accompanying the group are allowed, but they must meet certain conditions and tour providers must submit an application form for approval

Jeremiah Wong, senior marketing communications manager at Chan Brothers Travel, said he anticipates that there will be interested travellers who will be turning to trusted travel agencies for relevant information.

That is why the travel firm has “ramped up” its customer service and engagement on social media channels.

It will also hold a Facebook Live session together with the Hong Kong Tourism Board on November 19 to share with viewers new travel trends and the measures for safe travels to and around Hong Kong.

Wong said that Chan Brothers Travel will also roll out revised offerings for travels to Hong Kong, with an enhanced focus and emphasis on nature trails and the outdoors, after receiving enquiries about these activities. ― TODAY

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