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Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble: What we know so far

Leisure travel between Singapore and Hong Kong will restart later this month under the new quarantine-free 'Air Travel Bubble'.

What do we know so far about the arrangements, from testing and flights to award space, lounges and hotels?
Update: The ATB has now been officially announced starting on 22nd November 2020. See our article here for full details.

In what looks like it’s set to be the most anticipated and perhaps only opportunity for overseas leisure travel in the region for the rest of 2020, the governments of Singapore and Hong Kong last month announced that they had agreed to establish an Air Travel Bubble (ATB) between the two countries.

With no restrictions on travel purpose and no quarantine required at either end of the journey, this will be the first reciprocal leisure ‘green lane’ for Singapore residents since the COVID-19 border restrictions came into force earlier this year.

Singapore residents will be able to visit Hong Kong and vice-versa, starting later this month

The key features of the arrangement have already been revealed, but what else have we learned from statements made by officials and the airlines more recently, and what else are we waiting to have confirmed?

A quick recap

The bilateral ATB for general travel between the two cities was first rumoured in early October, with confirmation that an agreement had been reached coming through a week later.

Here are the fundamental principles for those travelling on the ATB:

  • Travellers will be subject to mutually recognised COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and will need to have negative test results.
  • Travellers will not be subject to any quarantine or Stay-Home Notice requirements, or a controlled itinerary.
  • Travellers will be required to travel on dedicated flights, i.e. these flights will only serve ATB travellers and no transit passengers or non-ATB travellers will be allowed on board.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong are still reporting very low daily and weekly COVID-19 case numbers, however the volume of travellers on the ATB can be calibrated in either direction depending on future trends or outbreaks.

“The ATB can be scaled by adjusting the number of dedicated flights upwards or downwards, or even suspended, in line with the latest developments and COVID-19 situation in the two cities.”

Government of Hong Kong SAR
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New announcements

It was Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam who first announced that the ATB would commence in November 2020, though no particular date was specified.

Hong Kong’s commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah confirmed in early November that the travel bubble should be in action by the end of the month, with tickets going on sale mid-month, suggesting we will have more details on the process and designated flights either this week or next week.

In Singapore Airlines’ financial results statement for the second quarter and half-year period last week, the new ATB was specifically mentioned.

“The bilateral Air Travel Bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong, which involves a robust testing regime, will do away with the quarantine measures that are a major deterrent to air travel. If successful, this will potentially pave a way forward for countries around the world that are looking to reopen their borders in a safe manner.”

Singapore Airlines H1 FY20/21 Financial Results

Anyone who has lived in Hong Kong or Singapore for the last 14 days will be eligible to travel on the ATB, including Permanent Residents and pass holders, regardless of age or nationality, with the exception of foreign workers living in dormitories in Singapore.

Testing

COVID-19 PCR testing is an obvious requirement for those travelling on the ATB, though at this stage there is little detail about where, when and how the process will be administered, plus the all-important costs involved.

Some airlines are operating testing facilities at the airport, however these are rapid antigen tests, not the more accurate PCR tests required under the upcoming ATB. (Photo: Lufthansa)

With charges for these tests potentially adding S$800 per person if four (unsubsidised) tests are required, this could be very off-putting, especially for larger families.

You can have a very nice staycation in Singapore for S$800 a head!

We hope that tests may be cheaper, subsidised or potentially limited to two per trip to mitigate additional costs, and hopefully full details on this, along with the process, will be announced soon.

Which flights will be ATB-designated?

Update: The ATB has now been officially announced starting on 22nd November 2020. See our article here for the full flight schedule.

The question on everyone’s lips since the ATB was first revealed has naturally been which flights to book.

Unfortunately still no word on this, so just to be clear – the designated flights have still not been announced!

Our advice: We strongly recommend holding off booking, even though it is likely that at least some of the currently-operating flights will be confirmed as ATB-designated, there is a possibility that this will not be the case every day of the week, or that a brand new flight or set of flights will be launched for the ATB.

The programme looks set to be restricted to perhaps one daily service at the start, though quotes from officials have stated both “one flight per day” and “at least one flight per day”, so it’s not too specific at this stage. There may turn out to be one return flight from each city per day.

Passenger flights on the Singapore – Hong Kong route are currently operating as follows:

  • Cathay Pacific: Three times per week using Airbus A350-900s
  • Singapore Airlines: 10 times weekly with a mixture of Boeing 787-10 (daily) and Airbus A350 Regional (three times weekly) flights
  • Scoot: Three times per week using Boeing 787-9s.

Here are a few things we’ve noted about these services between now and the end of 2020:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CX-Swoosh-Small.png Cathay Pacific is no longer selling transit itineraries on any of its flights (CX734/759) between Singapore and Hong Kong after 19th November 2020. The airline will also increase these flights to daily from 6th December 2020.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Kris-Yellow-Small.png Singapore Airlines has blocked transit itineraries on its daily SQ890/891 flights since 1st November 2020. Transit passengers to and from Hong Kong are now restricted to three times weekly afternoon SQ872/871 services.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is TZtrans-Small.png Scoot is still selling transit itineraries on its three times weekly TR980/981 services through to the end of 2020. The low-cost carrier has loaded daily service on the route from 7th December 2020 in GDS, but has yet to put the additional four times weekly (Mon, Wed, Thu, Sat) Airbus A320neo flights on sale.

This potentially indicates that only Singapore Airlines (SQ890/891) and Cathay Pacific (CX734/759) will initially participate in the ATB flights, since they are now both allowing only point-to-point bookings on specific flights, a requirement of the programme.

For your advance planning, we therefore predict at least some of the following flights and timings will probably be part of the ATB once announced:

  From 6th December 2020

Singapore    Hong Kong

  Days
M T W T F S S
SQ890
787-10
SIN
07:35
HKG
11:20
CX734
A359
SIN
16:45
HKG
20:45

Hong Kong    Singapore

  Days
M T W T F S S
CX759
A359
HKG
09:10
SIN
13:00
SQ891
787-10
HKG
12:30
SIN
16:30
Daily Singapore Airlines Boeing 787-10 flights to Hong Kong look set to be part of the ATB, though nothing has been confirmed yet. (Photo: Paul Schmid)

Again this has not been confirmed and we strongly recommend waiting for the official announcement before booking any flights. Hopefully the predicted schedule can help you make initial plans considering operating days and timings, though not all these flights will definitely be ATB-designated.

Smaller planes will be used

On an investor call yesterday, Singapore Airlines pointed towards an imposed cap on daily passenger numbers using the ATB by way of limiting the size of aircraft used.

“We are obviously very keen to make the bubble a success but of course, we do have to take into account the various considerations that the Government… will have in approving such a bubble and being experimental, we can expect some level of conservatism.

“So the ability to put our biggest passenger aircraft onto that bubble route, I think you can be sure that that will not be the case. We’ll be using one of our smaller aircraft.”

Lee Lik Hsin, EVP Commercial, Singapore Airlines

In other words, don’t expect the ATB designated flight SIA will be operating to suddenly become an Airbus A380, all of which remain stored at Changi or in Alice Springs. The airline is likely to stick to its current deployment of 337-seat Boeing 787-10s and/or 303-seat Airbus A350 Regionals at least for the initial phase of the ATB.

SIA’s 471-seat Airbus A380s won’t be making their way onto the Singapore – Hong Kong route. (Photo: Sudpoth Sirirattanasakul / Shutterstock)

Even if demand proves to be very high and both the Singapore and Hong Kong governments agree to allow more passengers and flights on the ATB in due course, it’s hard to see the viability of reactivating only one or two Airbus A380s from storage to serve this route.

We think SIA would rather add an additional A350 or 787 flight in that case.

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Premium Economy should be available

Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A350-900 flights between Singapore and Hong Kong have a 280-seat capacity, and are configured as follows:

Business: 38 (flat bed)
Premium Economy: 28
Economy: 214
Total Passengers: 280

While SIA’s Boeing 787-10s and Airbus A350 Regionals don’t have a Premium Economy cabin, it means those wanting to fly in Premium Economy should be able to do so on Cathay Pacific.

Cathay Pacific is the only airline currently offering a Premium Economy cabin on the Singapore – Hong Kong route, though it’s not yet confirmed whether these flights will form part of the ATB. (Photo: Cathay Pacific)

Singapore Airlines is also reintroducing Premium Economy on the Hong Kong route from 1st January 2021, when it switches its daily morning flight from SQ890/891 to the slightly later SQ860/863, planned to be flown by the airline’s 3-class long-haul Airbus A350.

SIA’s three-row Premium Economy cabin on the 3-class Airbus A350 will be returning to Hong Kong in January 2021. (Photo: View from the Wing)

Award tickets and fares

When in-principle agreement for the ATB was first announced last month, flight searches jumped 400% and fares rose 40% in response to the news, despite specific ATB flights not yet being confirmed.

With limited seats available each day and strong pent-up demand from a lack of overseas travel opportunities over the last eight months or so, cash looks set to be king on this route initially.

When we checked this morning, Singapore Airlines had already wiped all Economy Class and Business Class award space from Singapore to Hong Kong for the rest of 2020.

Similarly Cathay Pacific appears to have no Business Class Standard awards available through Asia Miles or partner programmes, though there are some more expensive ‘Choice’ or ‘Tailored’ awards in some cabins like Premium Economy, and we did find some Economy Standard redemptions in December 2020.

With awards looking an unlikely prospect for most at this stage, here’s how current cash fares look on the route between now and the end of December, based on a round-trip SIN-HKG-SIN booking, at the time of writing.

Cash fares

  Economy Premium Business

SIA
S$572 –
S$697
n/a S$2,019 –
S$3,084
CX S$427 –
S$620
S$1,112 –
S$1,282
S$1,789 –
S$1,952

Cathay Pacific is cheaper on most days, especially in Business Class.

For those still holding out hope for a redemption ticket, here are the applicable one-way award rates.

Award rates (Singapore Airlines)

Class / Route
Economy SIN > HKG 15,000
(+S$41.50)
HKG > SIN 15,000
(+S$45.70)*
Business SIN > HKG 30,500
(+S$41.50)
HKG > SIN 30,500
(+S$58.00)*

* Taxes from Hong Kong are charged in HKD and will fluctuate slightly due to exchange rates. Business Class taxes from HKG are slightly higher than Economy due to the increased Hong Kong Airport Construction Fee charged when flying in premium cabins.

Award rates (Cathay Pacific)

Class / Route
Economy SIN > HKG 10,000
(+S$41.50)
11,000
(+S$41.50)
HKG > SIN 10,000
(+S$45.70)*
11,000
(+S$45.70)*
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is CX-A351-PY-Cathay-Pacific-1024x683.jpgPremium Economy SIN > HKG 18,000
(+S$41.50)
16,500
(+S$41.50)
HKG > SIN 18,000
(+S$45.70)*
16,500
(+S$45.70)*
Business SIN > HKG 25,000
(+S$41.50)
22,000
(+S$41.50)
HKG > SIN 25,000
(+S$58.00)*
22,000
(+S$58.00)*

* Taxes from Hong Kong are charged in HKD and will fluctuate slightly due to exchange rates. Business Class taxes from HKG are slightly higher than Economy due to the increased Hong Kong Airport Construction Fee when flying in premium cabins.

The beauty of flying Cathay Pacific to or from Hong Kong is the cheaper award rates (if you can get them!), with Economy Class coming in 33% cheaper and Business Class 18% cheaper using Asia Miles for a Standard award, compared to using KrisFlyer miles for a Saver award on SIA.