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.
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
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
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.
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.
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:
|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.|
|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.|
|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
Hong Kong Singapore
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
|HKG > SIN||15,000
|Business||SIN > HKG||30,500
|HKG > SIN||30,500
* 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
|HKG > SIN||10,000
|Premium Economy||SIN > HKG||18,000
|HKG > SIN||18,000
|Business||SIN > HKG||25,000
|HKG > SIN||25,000
* 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.
Avios is the best currency for Cathay Pacific Business Class at 22,000 miles each way, however the airline doesn’t always open up as much space to oneworld partner airlines compared to its own Asia Miles members.
You can also use Alaska Miles to redeem Cathay Pacific flights (you’ll have to call Alaska to do this), with rates at 12,500 each way in Economy Class, 15,000 in Premium Economy and 22,500 in Business Class, plus the applicable taxes shown above.
Since most of our readers have to buy their Alaska Miles in one of the regular promotional sales, at 1.7+ US cents, this probably isn’t very good value compared to the Asia Miles or Avios programmes, both of which support transfers from credit card points in Singapore.
For those flying in Business Class or holding sufficient frequent flyer status with Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific, an important consideration will be pre-flight lounge access when flying to or from Hong Kong.
Cathay Pacific confirmed to Mainly Miles is currently has no lounge arrangement for its Business Class passengers or eligible status holders at Singapore Changi Airport.
Singapore Airlines on the other hand, while not currently operating its own SilverKris lounge in Hong Kong, told Mainly Miles it is inviting its Business Class passengers to use the Plaza Premium Lounge near Gate 1.
|SKL Business||Plaza Premium
(near Gate 1)
|None||The Wing First|
That means you’ll get to use the SilverKris Business Class lounge at Terminal 3 when flying on Singapore Airlines from Changi, but no lounge at all flying Cathay Pacific. In the other direction you’ll get access to The Wing First Class lounge in Hong Kong flying Cathay Pacific, and the Plaza Premium Lounge flying Singapore Airlines.
Currently The Wing First Class is the only Cathay Pacific lounge open in Hong Kong. It is available to those who would normally have lounge access when flying with Cathay Pacific or oneworld carriers.
Mainly Miles confirmed with Cathay Pacific that no voucher alternative is currently provided to Business Class passengers departing Changi, even though a lounge option is not available.
The optimal booking on this city pair for those prioritising the best lounge access as part of their experience may therefore be to fly Singapore Airlines to Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific back to Singapore, given that the SKL in Singapore and The Wing in Hong Kong can probably be regarded as the ‘best pair’.
It’s not yet clear, assuming both Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific participate in the ATB, whether you can ‘mix’ carriers or are restricted to one airline for your whole itinerary.
Logically if the ATB is successful and passenger volumes are sufficient, SIA’s SilverKris Lounge in Hong Kong might be reopened. We’ll be sure to update you if that happens, since it could then make Singapore Airlines the most logical carrier to choose for return routings when flying Business Class on the ATB.
If you’re a Priority Pass holder, a member of a similar lounge access programme, or are willing to pay for lounge access when flying on the ATB regardless of your travel class, here’s a summary of what’s currently available at either end of the journey.
In Singapore the Plaza Premium Lounge in T1 (read our review) is operating between 12pm and 6am daily, making it an ideal Priority Pass or paid access option for those flying on Cathay Pacific.
The SATS Premier Lounge in T1 is currently closed, while the DNATA lounge is only opening for its partner airline departure bank between 4pm and 11pm each day, making it unsuitable for those flying Cathay Pacific if the ATB flight timing corresponds with the current schedule.
For those flying with Singapore Airlines who don’t have SilverKris lounge access, the SATS Premier Lounge in T3 is operating 24 hours per day.
In Hong Kong the Plaza Premium lounge near Gate 1 is currently open from 8am to 00.30am, and is currently being used as SIA’s third-party lounge with complimentary access for KrisFlyer Gold / PPS Club and Star Alliance Gold travellers alongside Business Class passengers.
An additional Plaza Premium lounge near gate 35 is open in the mornings from midnight to 10am, which may suit those on Cathay Pacific’s morning departure (assuming it joins the ATB list) who don’t qualify for access to ‘The Wing’.
The Plaza Premium lounge near Gate 60 and the Plaza Premium First Class lounge near Gate 1 remain closed, as does the Amex Centurion lounge.
Will Hong Kong hotel prices skyrocket?
Unlikely. Hong Kong has around 300 hotels, 100 fewer than Singapore, though it has a higher proportion of mid-range and luxury properties by comparison.
Hotels in the Lion City are also much smaller on average, with 69,000 rooms available (around 170 per hotel) compared to 84,000 in Hong Kong (around 280 per hotel).
While staycations are a big thing for many in Singapore, even outside COVID-19 times, the same does not apply in Hong Kong which relies heavily on international tourism.Fun fact: Hong Kong had nearly 56 million international visitors in 2019, compared to just 19 million in Singapore.
It’s almost impossible that an ‘influx’ of around 300 Singapore residents per day in Hong Kong (perhaps 600 with two flights) once the ATB starts can affect pricing in a city that usually welcomes 150,000 tourists per day, unless they all wish to stay in the same hotel, which is unrealistic.
It’s also worth remembering that the ATB covers all travel purposes, including business travellers and those visiting friends and relatives or returning home, so not every passenger on every flight even needs a hotel room when they arrive.
A search this morning on Hotels.com for a weekend stay in early December showed 130 four and five-star properties alone in Hong Kong, with nightly rates including tax from S$109 to S$1,568.
The same search in Singapore revealed only 58 four and five-star hotels, with nightly rates from S$240 to S$2,881.
With some very competitive rates available in Hong Kong and more than double the choice of mid-range and luxury hotels, it may not be a bad idea to lock in a refundable rate at this stage as an insurance policy, since you can always cancel and book something cheaper later.
However, we don’t think prices will move one jot even when the ATB is officially launched. There is simply too much competition and spare capacity to go around.
Also, be careful to check the terms and conditions of any ‘staycation’ rate in Hong Kong. These are sometimes restricted to local residents, so Singapore residents won’t be eligible and may end up paying more.
What we still don’t know
As much as we do know, or at least reasonably suspect, the important part of the upcoming Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble remains what we don’t yet know.
Here’s what’s yet to be confirmed, but hopefully is only days away from being officially revealed:
- The exact launch date and application process.
- The operating airline(s) and service(s) making up the designated flights programme, and their timings.
- How many COVID-19 tests will be required, where and when they’ll happen.
- What the price of the required COVID-19 tests will be.
- How insurance cover and medical arrangements will work if travellers using the ATB fall ill during their trip and subsequently test positive for COVID-19.
It’s been mentioned a few times in this article already, but please don’t book any flights until the official list of ATB-designated services is announced. Refundable hotel reservations aren’t a bad idea, but we don’t think that will be vital as the volume of travellers on the ATB will probably be insufficient to cause a price hike.
Clearly there has been much planning and many safeguards put in place for this upcoming ATB, not least the likely daily flight / capacity / aircraft size cap most recently mentioned by SIA.
These precautions will hopefully ensure the success of the scheme, something we should all support since it it likely to act as a blueprint in the coming months for further such arrangements between Singapore and other countries.
“We believe that [the ATB will] serve as a very good pilot and example of how we can open up travel in a safe manner for everyone”Goh Choon Phong, CEO, Singapore Airlines
Much talk has been of ‘mutually recognised’ PCR tests, so we hope that will mean the two countries trusting one another’s results and perhaps minimising the number of tests required for each ATB trip, reducing inconvenience and costs for travellers.
The bad news? With only one or two flights per day and significant pent-up demand for overseas travel, as soon as flights are announced we expect it will be a “fastest fingers first” situation.
When it was first announced that the ATB would be starting in November, we did a poll on our Instagram and Facebook accounts asking our readers whether they would travel on the ATB before the end of 2020 and 43% said they would – a large proportion given the limited timescale.
Further details of the Singapore – Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble will be announced in due course, so stay tuned for details of the process and a list of those all-important dedicated flights as soon as we receive them.
(Cover Photo: Shutterstock)