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Hong Kong airport to accept transit passengers from 1 Jun

The airport joins Singapore in opening up air passenger transit traffic once again

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam announced on 26 May that transit services at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) will “partly resume” from 1 Jun.

This announcement came weeks after Singapore announced a similar move to allow transit traffic from 2 Jun.

Hong Kong implemented a ban on all non-resident visitors into Hong Kong, as well as transit passengers through HKIA since 25 Mar. All returning residents were also required to go to AsiaWorld Expo site for a compulsory Covid-19 test, before they were dispatched home to serve a 14-day self-quarantine.

Cathay Pacific group to benefit

Since the ban on transit passengers kicked in from 25 Mar, Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon collectively saw a drastic drop in passenger numbers, well over 99% compared to same period last year.

Cathay Pacific, which has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, has since April operated to “a skeleton schedule” of barely a dozen destinations served by just a handful of flights per week.

The reopening of transit lanes will allow Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon to purposefully open up routes via Hong Kong once again, especially as China is poised to be one of the first few countries to reopen its borders to a limited selection of countries.

How will the transit experience be like?

At the time of writing, there has been no details as to how the transit arrangements will be like, either from Hong Kong’s civil aviation authorities nor the airport.

Neither is it announced if transit passengers will be required to take a Covid-19 swab as well. This in itself may not be practical if the transit time is only a few hours, given that it takes a while before the swab test results may be available.

Don’t expect to be able to spend time in Cathay Pacific’s lounges in HKIA if you are passing through

HKIA will have a slightly easier way of handling transit traffic, given that the airport’s layout has already segregated arriving and departing passengers.

Some speculation online says that it is likely that transit passengers will not be able to enjoy transit facilities such as lounges or duty free shopping, and may be escorted to their next flights.

Final thoughts

Hong Kong has been cited internationally as one of the stellar examples of managing its Covid-19 situation, given that it has gotten its infection numbers under control, with the city recording a total of just over 1,000 cases with four deaths. Hong Kong is also reopening businesses cautiously, with crowd-pulling venues such as bars and clubs set to open this Friday (29 May).

The reopening of the airport for transit traffic is a step in the right direction, as the sector prepares itself to reopen international air travel. While travelling in June may not be possible given many countries still have border control restrictions in place, this definitely paves the way for a new normal in air travel in the months to come.

Changi Airport to allow transit passengers again from 2 Jun

The opening of transit facilities come after an all-out ban on transit and short term visitors into Singapore since 24 Mar

Singapore earlier this week (19 May) announced that it will officially be ending its ‘circuit breaker’ on 1 Jun, and doing a slow re-opening of the domestic economy in a three-phase approach.

Later in the evening, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) also issued a media release announcing that it will be allowing transit passengers through Changi Airport from 2 Jun as well, after local lockdown restrictions ease.

Transit visitors banned since 24 Mar

Since 24 Mar, Changi Airport has banned transit passengers on top of barring all short term visitors in order to combat the spread of Covid-19. Of course, with no more leisure visitors and the absence of transit passengers, Changi’s passenger movements fell drastically. In April alone, Changi Airport only handled 25,200 passengers, 99.5% lower than the previous year’s 5.58 million passengers.

Changi will welcome transit passengers from 2 Jun

According to the CAAS announcement, transit travellers will be allowed through Changi Airport once again, but subjected to a few arrangements:

Firstly, airlines will need to submit proposals for transfer lanes through Changi Airport to CAAS. The proposals will be evaluated taking into account aviation safety, public health considerations, as well as the health of passengers and air crew.

Next, strict protocols will taken. For instance, transit passengers will be required to ‘remain in designated facilities in the transit area’ and ‘do not mix with other passengers’ while in transit.

I will be very interested to see how the airlines and Changi Airport manage this, given that the airport does not segregate arriving and departing passengers.

I would imagine that this means that transit passengers will have to be somehow segregated from the arriving passengers, sorted according to their onward flights, and taken to a specific waiting room while waiting for the next flight.

Given Changi’s unique arrangement of having gate hold-rooms, this can very well mean that passengers must proceed directly to their next flight’s gate hold-rooms to wait for their flights, which in all likelihood be a very long time away given how sparse flights are at this point in time.

What this means for airlines

While Changi Airport has long established itself as a premier air hub, realistically the only airlines that can take advantage of this latest developments are the Singapore-registered carriers, i.e. Singapore Airlines Group, and Jetstar Asia.

There are a few other airlines, namely Emirates, Qantas, British Airways, who have operated fifth freedom flights out of Singapore, but given the current situation it will be highly unlikely they will resume these flights.  

Back to Singapore Airlines Group. The flag carrier will continue its skeletal flight schedule through the month of June, and a check on its website also showed that flights via Singapore (e.g. USA to Jakarta via Singapore) is not possible at this time. So there is a small possibility that Singapore Airlines may add flights at the last minute, but highly unlikely given the incredibly low demand for travel at this time.

Scoot, on the other hand, has expanded its destinations from just two in May (Hong Kong and Perth), to a bigger handful of six, including Ipoh, Kuching, Penang and Guangzhou.

With this latest development, airlines can start to sell tickets via Singapore in the near term, which opens up a lot of potential given that many countries are working towards opening essential travel lanes. The transit facility may also potentially help Singapore offer other foreign governments help in repatriation flights, via Singapore of course.

Final thoughts

I can imagine why Changi Airport will want to reopen as soon as possible.

For one, some other hubs in the region, such as Malaysia’s KLIA, have kept their transit facility open in spite of Covid-19 brewing within their borders. While these countries have also stopped allowing visitors into the country, transit facilities are still available to facilitate passengers who still need to travel for one reason or another.

Therefore, by green-lighting this process at this juncture, this gives airlines – especially home carrier Singapore Airlines – sufficient time to put together a plan to facilitate safe transits without having to rush into it. The measures can also be designed in a phased manner: starting off with the tightest of them all, and subsequently loosened as the global Covid-19 situation stabilises, and when travel demand ramps up again.

I don’t expect that the airport nor airlines will be able to benefit from this change in policy come June, but at least this sets wheels in motion for a new stream of transit passengers from July. If anything, this will help position Singapore Airlines to capture the transit share again when the world starts travelling again.

Qantas to provide face masks to all passengers

Qantas has introduced a new programme called “Fly Well”, which essentially outlines changes check-in, pre-departure and in-flight arrangements in the near future.

This comes ahead as Qantas prepares for the gradual resumption of domestic and trans-Tasman services, which the Australian and New Zealand governments are exploring.

So… what does Fly Well entail?

In its press release, Qantas said that the new programme “brings together a number of temporary and existing wellbeing measures to give you peace-of-mind at each point of your journey as restrictions ease in the months ahead and domestic travel resumes”.

Essentially this is what Qantas will be doing:

  • Providing hand sanitising stations throughout the terminal and at departure gates
  • Providing a “wellness kit” comprising masks and sanitising wipes to all passengers
  • Removing all in-flight entertainment and seatback literature

The airline also said that they have ‘ reduced our food and beverage offering’. In the last couple of weeks, Qantas has removed all in-flight food and beverage on domestic flights, so it remains to be seen what ‘reduced’ service means.

In addition, Qantas will be conducting boarding and disembarking in a sequenced manner, so that passengers at the rear of the aircraft board first to minimise interactions between passengers. Once seated, passengers will be asked to limit movement around the cabin.

Qantas lounge

Qantas was deliberately vague when it comes to the lounges. For now, all lounges across the Qantas network is closed, but they are looking at reopening it at some point in time.

Qantas Brisbane domestic business lounge (photo: Qantas)

Qantas has said that it will be making ‘temporary changes’ to the lounge experience when they reopen, including increased physical distancing, hand sanitising stations, enhanced disinfection of surfaces and changes to food and drink service.

How this will pan out, remains to be seen.

Qantas will provide face masks, but does not make wearing them mandatory

Here’s where it gets interesting. While Qantas will provide a disposable face mask to every passenger, they are not required to wear them all the time while in flight, unlike what some airlines require now.

Passenger wearing face mask (photo: Qantas)

Qantas’ argument is that the in-flight environment presents relatively low risk of catching Covid-19, and it has repeatedly emphasised the fact that its air conditioning systems on all Qantas and Jetstar aircraft are already fitted with hospital-grade HEPA filters, which remove 99.9% of all particles including viruses. The air inside the cabin is also refreshed every few minutes, ensuring the highest possible quality of cabin air.

Qantas Group Medical Director, Dr Ian Hosegood, said: “The data shows that actual risk of catching Coronavirus on an aircraft is already extremely low. That’s due to a combination of factors, including the cabin air filtration system, the fact people don’t sit face-to-face and the high backs of aircraft seats acting as a physical barrier. As far as the virus goes, an aircraft cabin is a very different environment to other forms of public transport.”

Qantas has long argued against deliberate social distancing measures on aircraft such as leaving middle seats empty, given that it has limited advantages in terms of social distancing but instead raises the prices of tickets.

Other measures Qantas is implementing

Apart from reducing in-flight touchpoints and providing masks and sanitising wipes, Qantas is also pushing hard for contactless pre-flight initiatives, such as:

  • Self check-in using either mobile or online check-in
  • Self-serve bag drop

Qantas has also said that it will conduct enhanced cleaning of aircraft with a disinfectant effective against COVID-19, with a focus on high contact areas. Airlines are known to do deep-cleans relatively infrequently, so it again remains to be seen how this will be conducted, and how frequently.

Final thoughts

It’s good that Qantas has clearly articulated what a ‘new normal’ is like when the world starts to travel again. While these measures are targeted at a domestic – and to some extent, trans-Tasman – travel market, if successful, this may also set pace for how international services will be like.

One thing I think is for sure, flying will no longer be as glamourous as it used to be. Not at least for the near future.

Qatar Airways’ ridiculously good rebooking policy

“Travel with Confidence” campaign gives you free rebooking

So the miles and travel community went abuzz last week because Qatar Airways launched a new campaign “Travel with Confidence“, boasting free rebooking of tickets bought from now till 30 September 2020, for travel on or before 31 December 2020.

The mechanism

The ‘promotion’ first started off affording customers maximum flexibility for tickets bought between now till 30 Sep, for travel commencing on or before 31 Dec 2020.

Qatar is offering practically all kinds of flexibility you can imagine:

  • Hold your ticket: You can hold your ticket for a maximum of two years from the time you bought the ticket,
  • Swap for miles: You can swap the value of the ticket for Qmiles, at a rate of USD1 = 100 Qmiles. Effectively, you are paying 1 US cent per mile.
  • Credit voucher: You can exchange the value of the ticket in the form of credit, with a 10% bonus.
  • Rebook your flight to a different destination: Rebook another flight to a different destination within 5,000 miles radius with no change fees or fare difference.

Customers are also offered a refund option, only if their flights get cancelled subsequently.

Rebooking policy

The rebooking condition is the one that created the buzz, given the incredulously generous conditions. They are so generous, Qatar Airways have tightened the conditions twice over the weekend. The basic terms as below:

  • As of last Friday (15 May), Qatar originally allowed customers to rebook their flights to a destination anywhere within 5,000 miles of the original destination booked.
  • No change fees, no fare difference, no surcharges whatsoever required, even for taxes (hint: change to LHR)

Of course you can count on the community to find loopholes in the system. Of which, the first to be plugged are the fifth freedom flights — the early birds in this promotion had gamed the system, swapping out $900 business class return fares between SGN and PNH for a HAN-DOH-AKL-DOH-HAN routing, all in the comfort of Qsuites.

What are fifth freedom flights?

Fifth freedom flights are flights that airlines operate entirely outside of their countries (e.g. Country A’s airline operates from Country A to Country B to Country C, and the leg between Country B & C is considered a fifth freedom flight).

In Qatar’s case, they operate three fifth freedom flights: Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City; São Paulo to Buenos Aires; Djibouti to Mogadishu.

Now, 5,000 miles is an extremely generous change policy – look at the map below and you will realise that 5,000 miles can get you a lot of leverage:

map
5,000 miles from CDG
map
5,000 miles from MCT

Qatar slaps on additional conditions

So obviously, anything that’s too good to be true usually don’t last too long.

Over the weekend, Qatar Airways added on two additional conditions:

Fifth freedom flights are excluded from this ‘promotion’, so only flights that pass through DOH will be eligible for the free changes. So if you have booked a SGN to PNH and want to swap it for a SGN to LHR flight, you are out of luck.

Secondly, Qatar has slapped on a 14-day waiting period before any voluntary change can be made (i.e. the flight is not cancelled, but you feel like changing it).

On top of this time-out, while you can still make a free change of your destination (origin cannot be changed) to anywhere within a 5,000-mile radius, Qatar will require changes to be made in the same booking class. If space is not available within the same booking class, you will need to pay the fare and tax difference.

The official wording is below:

Rerouting for voluntary purposes (i.e. where there has been no flight disruption) is possible 14 (fourteen) days after making the booking. New flights must be booked in the same booking class (RBD), be operated by Qatar Airways and can be changed within the same country of origin and/or within a 5,000 (five thousand) mile radius from the original destination booking. If the same booking class is not available, a fare and taxes difference may apply.

Qatar Airways terms & conditions, retrieved 18 May

Final thoughts

If you ask me, this 14-day waiting period is rather dangerous. Given how fluid the situation is, the low booking classes that you have secured now may be gone by the time the two-week window is up, and any change will result in hefty fare and tax differences.

While this is admittedly a very good campaign with incredibly generous policies, the weekend has shown that Qatar Airways will – and can – walk back on its policies.

Personally I won’t hold my breath and try to take a gamble on this ‘promotion’ (e.g. buying a $2,000 business class fare out of Manila to Europe, and trying to change it to a US destination two weeks later). If anything, I’m willing to bet on Qatar further tweaking the terms of this campaign, including a narrowing of the 5,000-mile change radius.

Bank of China slashes BOC Elite Miles card earn rate from 15 Jun

The revised rates are abysmal, so remember to cash out your points by 15 Jun

BOC with its spectacular BOC Elite Miles card, has finally blinked.

BOC Elite Miles card

The card, which has one of the highest local spend earn rates for a general spending card, will be effectively reducing the earn rate of BOC Elite Miles card from 15 Jun, according to a revised terms and conditions document sent out to cardmembers yesterday (via SMS, no less).

The keyword here being ‘effectively’ because of the way the change is made. Most other banks will usually change the earn rate of the cards, but BOC has taken the other approach by changing the conversion rate.

BOC will be changing the conversion rate of your BOC points to miles from 15 Jun, as follow:

Frequent Flyer ProgrammeCurrentlyFrom 15 Jun
Krisflyer30,000 points to
10,000 miles
45,000 points to
10,000 miles
Asia Miles18,000 points to
6,000 miles
27,000 points to
6,000 miles

This means that the conversion cost of your BOC points has gone up by 50%, effectively reducing your earn rate by 33.3%.

Spend typeCurrentlyFrom 15 Jun
Local spend1.5 mpd1 mpd
Overseas spend3 mpd2 mpd

While the change will kick in on 15 Jun, note that the change will impact all BOC points held on the account, including those that are earned before 15 Jun.

Excerpt from the revised T&C document

What the new conversion rates mean

As Milelion rightfully pointed out, the change in conversion rate effectively diminishes the ‘earnings’ before 15 Jun, given that BOC has decided to tweak the conversion rate rather than the earn rate.

The key issue with this approach is that it penalises past spending, given that the decision (to use the card) was taken in consideration of alternatives available at that point in time. Interestingly, if you refer to the current terms and conditions, there is actually no mention of the conversion rate. The earn currency listed in the document is also BOC points, so legally I reckon they are pretty well protected.

Final thoughts

Sneaky one, this bank.

When this card first launched in 2018, it generated a lot of fanfare given its incredible earn rates for a general spending card, possibly the highest among its competitors in those days. The popularity was reflected in an oversubscription of sign ups, to the point where the bank couldn’t cope and applications were taking up to a month to process.

Over the two years while the card last, there were a lot of scandalous moments with the card, such as BOC unilaterally deducting points in lieu of an annual fee ‘waiver’ (I personally experienced it and needed to call to claw them back after many painful conversations), and also the very backward method of converting points to miles, given you literally have to print out a form, fill it up, scan it and send it back.

So if you still have yet to cash in on your BOC points, this is the time to do it. The danger for you is that BOC has not been clear whether it will take 15 Jun as the submission cut-off date, or the actual conversion date. This little detail is critical, as in my own experience, BOC took at least two weeks to convert the points to miles.

So, good luck everyone.