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[Herald Interview] Korea eyes how to revitalize aviation industry

Senior transport ministry official talks COVID-19, travel bubbles and Korean Air-Asiana acquisition

Kim Sang-do, deputy minister for civil aviation, during an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday. (The Ministry of Transport)
Kim Sang-do, deputy minister for civil aviation, during an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday. (The Ministry of Transport)
The year 2020 has been one marred by a global pandemic. For the aviation industry, it was a time of unseen hardships.

Countries around the world took a different approach to the virus crisis as some tried to maintain the flow of people while others were quick to close down the borders.

South Korea‘s strategy was to balance the two apporaches, said Kim Sang-do, deputy minister for civil aviation at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.

“We did a great job preemptively protecting Incheon Airport (against COVID-19),“ Kim said, in an interview with The Korea Herald on Tuesday morning, ahead of the Aviation-Tourism Recovery Forum, an event jointly held by the transport and culture ministries featuring speakers from groups such as the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Air Transport Association.

“COVID-19 prevention is key to normalizing the aviation industry as well as the tourism sector. But when the emphasis (on prevention) is too strong, these industries will shrink back, so for us, balancing between the two is important,” he said.

While 14-day quarantine upon entry is not technically a border shutdown, its effect on tourism has been little to no different as international air traffic to Korea dropped by more than 95 percent earlier this year. But Kim is happy to defend the government’s position.

“Without the strict measures, the virus would have spread to a point that is unmanageable,” the deputy minister said.

Earlier on the same day, the government announced that it had secured enough vaccines for 44 million people from major vaccine manufacturers AstraZeneca Plc., Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and Janssen.

Vaccines are great news, and particularly for the aviation industry, so hopes have begun to coalesce around them. The International Air Transport Association, for instance, is working on a ‘digital passport’ that would verify passengers’ vaccination status.

The transport ministry also announced on Tuesday plans to fast-track procedures for vaccine transportation and to lift the cap on the maximum amount of dry ice on aircrafts to improve the effectiveness of the process.

South Korea wants to energize its aviation industry, too, through travel bubbles, or so-called corona corridors that do away with strict quarantine procedures for a select group of travelers from certain countries where the coronavirus has been contained.

Recently, Singapore and Hong Kong worked to form a travel bubble together, though the official date has been pushed back following a recent spike in cases in Hong Kong.

Kim said Korea could look for its own travel bubble partner among China, Taiwan and Singapore where the number of cases remains low, once cases in the country drop and vaccinations begin.

“With the third wave coming globally, it’s not going to be anytime soon but travel bubbles are the most effective way to save the aviation industry and we have plans to work with the health authorities, the foreign ministry and airlines when the time is right,” Kim said.

According to a spokesperson for the transport ministry, however, detailed discussions have yet to be had with said countries.

With international flights not taking off, “flights to nowhere” have emerged as a niche market and multiple airlines -- Asiana Airlines, Jeju Air and Air Seoul – recently launched such flights that fly over Japan.

Passengers can collect air mileage and also enjoy duty-free shopping worth up to $600 (670,000 won) – a new scheme devised by the transport ministry to help the duty-free sector.

“We have put measures in place to separate transit passengers from those boarding ‘flights to nowhere’ by dedicating certain hours to each group,” Kim said.

On the issue of Korean Air’s takeover of Asiana Airlines, which recently was given a go-ahead by a local court, Kim said the country‘s second largest airline’s doomed fate has been long time coming.

“If you look at Asiana internally, it appears the road to revival is rather difficult for them.”

Kim explained that Korean Air used to focus on medium and long-haul flights while Asiana Airlines began with a focus on short-haul flights to countries such as Japan, China and Southeast Asia.

But the rise of low-cost carriers in recent years amid the country’s international tourism boom meant that Asiana, once seen as Korean Air’s longtime rival, began losing ground to budget airlines while its long-haul flights lagged behind Korean Air in profits.

While the tie-up of the country’s two largest airlines will restructure the country’s aviation industry and potentially avoid tens of thousands of job cuts, as promised by Korean Air, the move has also faced criticisms over wasting taxpayers money and monopoly concerns.

But at a time when airlines around world are filing bankruptcy and announcing large-scale job cuts, Kim says it was inevitable.

“With employment at the center of our government’s agenda, we are offering support in whatever measures possible to avoid layoffs (in the aviation industry),“ Kim said.

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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