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Singapore-Hong Kong ATB launch deferred by two weeks

The travel bubble bursts for now, bubble slated for re-start on 6 Dec 2020

Travellers hoping to catch the Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble (ATB) will now have to wait another two weeks for it to begin, as Hong Kong is facing a possible ‘fourth wave’ in Covid-19 cases.

The ATB was originally slated to commence today (22 Nov), but a decision was made on Saturday afternoon to postpone it by two weeks given the unstable situation in Hong Kong.

­Hong Kong

On Saturday (21 Nov 2020), Hong Kong saw a total of 13 unlinked cases, bringing the seven day average of unlinked cases to 3.86. While this did not reach the mutually agreed threshold of 5, both countries agreed that it would be unwise to commence the ATB at this point.

Given the evolving situation in Hong Kong, Secretary Edward Yau and I discussed further this afternoon, and decided that it would be better to defer the launch of the ATB, by two weeks. We will review within two weeks on the new launch date and update again.

Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung

While the initial deferment is for two weeks, both governments are said to announce details of the new launch dates in ‘early December’.

Hours earlier: new on-arrival test requirement in Singapore

Just a day before the postponement was announced, Singapore has installed a new testing requirement for travellers from Hong Kong as the latest measure. Passengers travelling on ATB flights from Hong Kong to Singapore previously only needed to take a test before departing Hong Kong.

This brings the total number of tests for a round-trip journey to four: one before departure from each point, and one upon arrival at each airport.

Under the original arrangements of the ATB, there were only three tests required:

  1. Pre-departure test from Singapore to Hong Kong (between S$160 to S$200)
  2. On-arrival test taken upon arrival in Hong Kong (HKD499, or S$83)
  3. Pre-departure test from Hong Kong to Singapore (between HKD750 to HKD2000, or S$120 to S$325)

There was previously no requirement to take a test upon arrival in Singapore. With the new requirement, the new requirement adds another S$196 to the costs of tests, bringing the total for a round-trip journey to at least S$600.

The exception will be for those who have spent less than 72 hours in either city, given the pre-departure test is no longer required if the arrival test was taken less than 72 hours before the return flight.

Children under the age of 12 are not required to take the pre-departure Covid-19 PCR test when travelling from Hong Kong to Singapore (both pre-departure and upon arrival), but is required to do so when travelling from Singapore to Hong Kong.

It’s unclear at this moment if this fourth test will continue to be required when the ATB launches on 6 Dec 2020.

Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific offer refunds

Given such late notice of the postponement of the flights, both airlines have offered free refunds or rebooking of the flights for those hoping to travel between 22 Nov and 5 Dec.

Singapore Airlines customers who no longer wish to travel on the ATB flights can request for a refund, or rebook their flights through SIA’s Assistance Request form. Any refunds will be accorded to the passengers’ original mode of payment.

For Cathay Pacific customers, they may request for full refund, exchange the value of the ticket towards Cathay Credits, or rebook the flights free of charge. Affected customers will be preliminarily rebooked on non-ATB flights, so be sure to check your email or contact your travel agent for next steps.

Seats availability very low from 6 Dec

With the bubble deferred for two weeks, passengers who were originally planning to travel between 22 Nov and 5 Dec will be scrambling to rebook flights.

Unfortunately, seats are scarce. On Singapore Airlines, there are no longer any seats available for booking on the ATB-designated daily flights SQ890 and SQ891 from the entire month of December. This is more likely to be a pre-emptive measure on SIA’s part, to accommodate affected customers who wish to rebook their flights.

For Cathay Pacific, there are barely a few seats available on select days in December, but these are expected to be fully taken up with the rebookings for the coming days. However, economy class fares have breached the S$1,000 mark, with round-trip tickets for the week of 7 Dec going at about S$1,200.

Final thoughts

Many people have probably joked about how the bubble will burst even before it begins at one point or another, no thanks to the term ‘bubble’.

The unfortunate thing has indeed happen, tragically hours before the first flight was slated to take off.

With the whole world keeping an eye on how the ATB will work out, it is indeed unfortunate that the arrangement has to be postponed as a result of a potential fresh outbreak. As Singapore Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung puts it: “it is a sobering reminder that the virus is still with us”.

Even as details of the new launch dates come up in the weeks ahead, how Hong Kong manages its cases will also be very critical. If the situation doesn’t come under control, it’s likely that the ATB will be further delayed, perhaps till 2021.

For now, we can only wait.

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