AVIATION INTERVIEW WITH SUBHAS MENON
Director-General of Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA)
Subhas Menon joined the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines in March 2020 in what he called a ‘baptism of fire’, with over 35 years’ experience in international aviation having served in a wide spectrum of roles including international & government relations and country & regional management. The aviation veteran shares with us how he continues to hold the fort for AAPA as Asia-Pacific airlines continue to navigate the pandemic.
Please describe the significance of AAPA for its members.
AAPA is a B2B organisation and we primarily serve the interest of our airline members. In other words, we are a collective spokesperson for the Asia-Pacific airlines. It is also AAPA’s role to facilitate a common forum for our members to address areas of open interest and government relations. We constantly engage with governments and address issues that affect the airlines, address government policies and regulations.
For example, Covid-19 is an issue that affects all the airlines, consumers, businesses, so we have been constantly discussing via forums in order to mitigate it. In normal circumstances, we jump on a plane to meet organisations, but during these days, it is harder for us as communicating face-to- face is of the utmost importance to us in facilitating discussion.
What are the momentous achievements of AAPA since its inception?
AAPA has been around in various forms for 60 years and has been a medium for representing airlines from a small and now to a large degree. In my opinion, the overall success of the Asia-Pacific aviation industry before Covid-19 has been an achievement for AAPA. Before Covid-19, the Asia-Pacific region was the fastest growing region for the aviation industry. It has also weathered many different crises such as SARS, Bird- flu, and the Asian Financial Crisis. All in all, the aviation industry in general is very resilient and sophisticated, and many of these achievements have been realised as a result of technological advancement and the great support that airlines have through organisations and their governments.
The Asia-Pacific market is quite different from the other markets. Firstly, it is not contiguous, there are no other alternative transport networks such as rail and coach like Europe
or the American continent. We are a very diverse region and not only that, we are very vibrant; the Asia-Pacific market is full of new developments and fast-growing, unlike matured markets like Europe and North America.
In 2020, we have been advocating to governments to keep their borders open; we urge governments to establish bilateral agreements for travel and tourism. Last year, we also advocated for support and subsidies for the airlines as well as exemptions from charges to airlines so that they can continue operating. Overall, I would say that our airlines have been successful in staying afloat, as many of the airlines are operating vaccine and cargo flights.
March 2021 recorded as the best month in air cargo demand since 2019, helped by the rising business confidence and e-commerce growth. What measures is AAPA taking to keep this momentum going?
The airlines are blessed with minimal restrictions in terms of air cargo. I commend the diversity and adaptability of the airlines to quickly take advantage of the current situation. Some airlines have retrofitted their airlines as well in order to accommodate air cargo demand. Some of the forms of cargo that have increased in demand include WFH home products, medical supplies, humanitarian aid, and vaccines.
The airlines have certainly taken the lead in doing what they can to keep the supply chains going. For example, during the Suez canal incident, air cargo demand surged as well, and during this time airlines were there to fill in the gaps of the crippled shipping industry. All credit goes to the airlines for always being on the ball.
What is AAPA’s plan for its members in 2021?
Asia-Pacific airlines have it rough as Asian countries have prioritised an elimination strategy in Asia that is to form their strategy around decreasing Covid-19 cases at all cost, in contrast to a mitigation strategy in Europe that adopts a more lenient approach in terms of containing the virus. Currently, smart technology solutions are a great way to mitigate the current situation, e.g. digital travel pass by e.g. IATA.
When borders reopen, the industry must redouble its efforts to recover. We also advocate that cabin crews, ground crews and aircraft ought to be placed on standby after putting in cold storage for so long; airlines need to be ready when the recovery takes off.
We will continue to work to our best efforts in establishing a dialogue between governments, organisations and other parties. Last but not least, we want governments to prioritise travel tourism.
I would like to point out that IATA’s and other organisations’ digital travel pass has been very welcomed. Its four modules: the first is a repository of all the formal documents before getting on the plane; second one is a repository of approved testing centres; third one is a platform for testing centres and labs to send certificates of vaccination and tests; and the last module helps the passengers to obtain official documents from border agencies.
As cross-border travels and general global abatement of Covid-19 cases take place, how important is it for organisations like AAPA to encourage the full recovery of the global aviation industry?
It is imperative that we watch all developments like a hawk and stay on our toes; an isolationist policy does not do any country any good. We need to prioritise travel tourism and speed up vaccinations. To illustrate the severity of the issue, some countries have vaccinated 30-60% of their population, however right now, most countries in Asia have only vaccinated less than 10% and some below 5%. Recovery cannot take place if only rich countries recover and achieve herd immunity. A global recovery can only be achieved when all countries have executed their vaccine rollouts to the best of their abilities.
Please tell us your personal experience working for AAPA since last year and the opportunities and challenges in spearheading the association. I joined AAPA in March 2020 and it certainly was a baptism of fire; it was a challenge for me but I was glad to play a part as I have been in the industry for 35 years. Whatever I learned or gathered in the past has not been enough, and it is a totally different ballgame. The issues haven’t been very serious for the airlines, however, there have been minor differences only in terms of dynamics between airlines and their governments.
The biggest difficulty is that we can’t even get on a plane and we are in the aviation industry! In terms of communication, this has been a difficult one. But the aviation industry is a very resilient one, having weathered many crises, so I am confident that we will get through this one as well.
In your opinion, what measures should the government and organisations take in order to facilitate a full global recovery for aviation?
The primary priority is travel and tourism, this is extremely important to the Asia- Pacific economy. Airlines are ready as this is imperative for the economy to recover smoothly. A big challenge faced by the aviation industry is the diverging policies between countries, therefore bilateral agreements are critical in order to facilitate travel bubbles. This is why AAPA strongly supports the Digital Travel Pass as that is the only way to navigate the travel process in the new normal where there is a multiplicity of restrictions.
I have to admit there is a level of impatience and anxiety around the travel and aviation industry as we want the case numbers to come down. We also hope that our public health facilities are able to hold up before it becomes out of control. If health facilities cannot hold up, then we have lost the plot. Vaccinations are absolutely key for all parties.
What drives your passion for the aviation industry?
I was born and bred in Singapore. During the 70s, I saw the Concorde Supersonic jet near where I was living, and I thought that it was such an amazing invention and that it would be amazing to be involved in the aviation industry. When I was in my early 20s, Singapore Airlines operated the Concorde and they made a huge order of Boeing 747s and for me, that was an important moment that inspired love for the aviation industry.
What is beautiful about the industry is that it absolutely enriches humanity, through travel we can remove all our prejudices; we understand different cultures when we get on a plane to go somewhere far away. In addition, when I began my career in the aviation industry, the Asia-Pacific industry
had just started growing rapidly. Lastly, I also want to say that airports in the world play an extremely important role in the global recovery to make sure the whole travel process is Covid- safe. Having gone through KLIA, it is a great airport and I want to commend all the efforts that Malaysia Airports is taking in order to facilitate a Covid-free process for passengers and doing all they can including upgrades in gearing up for when the industry recovery will inevitably take place.