Singapore Airlines has become the latest airline to pick up a two-week ban on flying passengers to Hong Kong after a traveller tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival, combined with three passengers on the same flight having been found not to have conduced an approved pre-departure test.
This does not affect the carrier’s permission to fly passengers from Hong Kong to Singapore (and beyond), and in the meantime Cathay Pacific and Scoot retain their permissions for Singapore – Hong Kong passenger services.
Flight SQ882, operated daily by an Airbus A350 Long-Haul aircraft, will now operate as a cargo-only flight from Singapore to Hong Kong from 3rd April 2021 to 16th April 2021 inclusive, but will still carry passengers on its return trip as SQ883.
Hong Kong’s statement
Here’s what the government of Hong Kong SAR had to say yesterday about the new ban:
As a passenger flight (SQ882) operated by Singapore Airlines from Singapore to Hong Kong on March 31, 2021, had one passenger confirmed to have COVID-19 through specimen collected at the DH’s Temporary Specimen Collection Centre, while three passengers failed to comply with requirements specified under the Prevention and Control of Disease (Regulation of Cross-boundary Conveyances and Travellers) Regulation (Cap. 599H), the DH thus invoked the regulation to prohibit landing of passenger flights from Singapore operated by Singapore Airlines in Hong Kong from April 3 to 16, 2021.Government of Hong Kong SAR press release
Singapore Airlines is not the first
SIA is far from the first airline to be impacted by Hong Kong’s strict requirements for air carriers bringing passengers with COVID-19 (or without a valid pre-departure PCR test) into the SAR.
Recent 14-day bans include:
- Air India (BOM): Banned in Oct 2020
- Air India (DEL): Banned four times (Aug 2020, Sep 2020, Oct 2020 and Nov 2020)
- British Airways (LHR): Banned in Dec 2020
- Emirates (DXB): Banned in Jan 2021
- KLM (AMS): Banned in Dec 2020
Local carrier Cathay Pacific has also picked up several bans on individual routes for breaching the strict thresholds.
The flight bans in Hong Kong are imposed by one of the following criteria being triggered:
- A passenger fails to provide correct information about their health/travel history combined with one or more passengers testing positive for COVID-19 on arrival
- Five or more passengers test positive for COVID-19 on arrival
- Two consecutive flights from a location each have three or more passengers who test positive for COVID-19 on arrival.
Singapore Airlines seems to have been found to violate the first criteria in this case, since not only did a passenger test positive after landing (this does happen from time to time), but three additional passengers on the same flight did not have the correct pre-departure test.
That’s a little different from other bans (e.g. Air India), where the volume of positive COVID-19 cases detected on arrival triggered the bans, while SIA’s ban is more of an ‘incorrect paperwork’ issue, which (unluckily) coincided with a positive case.
Any airline operating a flight to Hong Kong carrying passengers from high-risk countries, including transit passengers originating in such locations, has to submit a form before departure stating that those passengers have the required COVID-19 negative certificates.
All four passengers were transiting through Singapore
The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) said yesterday that the passenger who tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival in Hong Kong had originated in Indonesia and had a valid negative pre-departure test result.
The other three passengers were also in transit (those arriving solely from Singapore do not require a pre-departure test). They all tested negative for COVID-19 on arrival in Hong Kong.
They were non-compliant, however, because they had pre-departure tests in their countries of origin that did not meet Hong Kong’s requirements (it is the air operator’s responsibility to verify this at the point of first check-in).
Hong Kong currently requires a negative COVID-19 nucleic acid (PCR) test result on arrival for travellers who have originated in or transited through the following countries in the last 21 days:
- United Arab Emirates
It’s not clear exactly what element of the tests were non-compliant for the three passengers in this case, but for the certificate to be regarded as valid the test must have been taken at most 72 hours before departure of the last direct flight to Hong Kong.
The name in the test result must also match the name on the travel document, or a written confirmation issued by the laboratory with the name of the passenger must be presented, plus a letter issued by the local authorities certifying the laboratory as approved by the government.
All arriving passengers are tested for COVID-19 at Hong Kong airport after disembarkation, regardless of origin point.
Here’s what Singapore Airlines has said about the ban:
“SIA has taken immediate steps to strengthen checks at the point of embarkation to ensure that our customers are in compliance with Hong Kong’s regulatory requirements. We will also assist the health authorities in all contact tracing efforts related to this case.”Singapore Airlines spokesperson
SIA’s Hong Kong flights
Last week Singapore Airlines operated over 30 flights from Singapore to Hong Kong, however most were cargo-only services with just 7 (the daily SQ882/883) carrying passengers, as shown below.
|Singapore Airlines Flights
(w/c 22nd March 2021)
All Singapore – Hong Kong flights over the next two weeks will now operate as cargo-only services, while daily SQ883 Hong Kong – Singapore flights will still be able to carry passengers.
Both Cathay Pacific and Scoot will continue to be permitted to carry passengers in both directions on the route.
Would this have affected the ATB?
As most of our readers are aware, Singapore and Hong Kong have been planning an Air Travel Bubble (ATB) for quite some time, allowing testing to replace quarantine for those travelling between the two cities for any purpose.
Unfortunately the bubble was abandoned at the last minute in November 2020, when Hong Kong started to see a new spike in COVID-19 cases, however discussions regarding a new launch are back on, now that the city has managed its ‘fourth wave’ of cases. Additional safeguards are said to be in store, potentially including vaccinated status for travellers.
One hypothetical question many are asking now, however, is that if the ATB had currently been running, would this flight ban for Singapore Airlines services affect it?
In our opinion, this should not have any impact.
The ATB is proposed with dedicated flights by Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, carrying point-to-point travellers only, who have completed a specific testing regime. SIA’s current passenger flights to and from Hong Kong, on the other hand, are largely catering to transit passengers.
SIA’s plan when the ATB was first proposed was to shift all transit passengers on the route onto Scoot flights, while Cathay Pacific would cease serving the Singapore transit market, at least initially, only operating ‘bubble flights’.
Even if SIA was operating both transit and bubble flights on the Hong Kong route, we think the ATB services would be regarded separately if another breach like this were to lead to another ban at a future date.
Effectively, Singapore Airlines has picked up a two-week ban for carrying passengers to Hong Kong because it failed to check the pre-departure test certificates of three transit passengers thoroughly enough at their original point of embarkation, and the SAR’s discovery of irregularities coincided with an unrelated COVID-19 positive arrival test on the same flight.
That seems very strict, and not a little unlucky, but SIA is far from the first airline to have fallen foul of Hong Kong’s rules over recent months, and flights by Cathay Pacific and Scoot on the same route are not affected.
SIA is also still able to operate from Hong Kong to Singapore with passengers, reassigning its daily flight in the opposite direction to cargo-only status for the duration of the ban.
Luckily we don’t think this will have any impact on the ongoing discussions regarding a reboot of the ATB between the two cities, which in any case will use dedicated ‘bubble flights’ with their own testing (and perhaps even vaccination) requirements.
(Cover Photo: Skycolors / Shuterstock)