COVID-19 and Travel

This week my family and I are supposed to be having holiday in New Zealand; stretching our annual leaves by having holiday between 2 public holidays (Labour Day and Vesak Day).  It would be our penultimate holiday without following school holiday as next year our daughter will start her first year in primary school.

We also have plan to make another trip before end of the year, a long one, re-exploring Canada.  I even tried (but failed) to reserve for bus ticket to enter Lake Ohara, a beautiful lake deep inside Yoho National Park.  My wife and I visited the lake during our honeymoon, and we would like to visit the lake again, this time with our daughter. Some of spectacular photos of the Rockies I took were taken when we hiked around the lake.

Alas, because of COVID-19, our trip to New Zealand has not happened and our planned trip to Canada most likely will not happen either.

Until the world could address the COVID-19, either by finding effective medications, vaccine (which will take months to get one and additional months for mass vaccination, if countries could get hold the vaccine in the first place) or (ironically, when COVID-19 is spreading out-of-control) the community attained herd-immunity against COVID-19, travelling would not be the same.

In the attempt to limit the spread of the virus, various governments, including Canada and New Zealand, either imposed quarantine rule for visitors or returning citizens or closed the border altogether. Practically, we have multi-level lock-down, starting at household level, domestic travel and international levels.

Some countries, such as New Zealand, Germany have started to loosen up the lock-down, however the speed of easing up the lock-down vary from countries to countries and it does not immediately lead to opening up of the border. 

The quarantine rule for incoming passengers may still be apply.  There is always worry that lifting the lock-down too early and too fast may lead to another wave of COVID-19 which may be more devastating.  History taught us that the second wave of the 1918 Spanish flu (which ironically did not originate from Spain) claimed the most life.

Opening up the border may not immediately mean the return of travel as we had before COVID. The quarantine rule for incoming passengers may still be apply.  This would immediately disincentive any travels except for any essentials or emergencies. Nobody would like to spend 14 days upon arriving in a country, then spend one or two weeks for holiday, then spend another 14 days upon returning.

Scientists also learned that many people who contracted COVID-19 are asymptomatic, which means when the next wave of COVID-19 is detected in the population, the health system would be immediately behind the curve and another round of lock-down needs to be imposed in order to prevent further spread.

Travelling could not be planned well in advance anymore.  Air ticket, hotel could not be booked and paid in advance because there is no guarantee that the destination country remain opens when at the time of the travel.

Worse, if the lock down happened while inside the country.  The prospect to get extended holiday because the country is locked-down is simply unpalatable.

Some countries may impose mandatory health check for all visitors. It may take hours just to wait for the result.  Antibody tests may give result in minutes, but it may give false positives; the best result is from PCR test but it takes more time to complete. Those hours are spent waiting anxiously in the arrival area of the airport which is never known to provide good amenities in contrast to the departure area. 

A clean bill of health does not mean people are out of the wood; if there were one passenger seated tested positive for COVID-19, other passengers seated that passengers may also be quarantined. Travelling is suddenly involving so many uncertainties.

The worst part is when the test showed a positive result.  The question is, who will pay the cost of the hospitalization.  The local government may not want to foot the bills for non-residents.  Travel insurance industry, facing the prospect of high bill for COVID-19-related costs, may exclude COVID-19 from the coverage or impose high premium for the coverage. 

Airlines and countries may demand each passenger to have certificate that proofs him free from COVID-19.  The certificate may allow the passenger to bypass any health and quarantine check at destination country.  However, not many countries provide walk-in test for COVID-19; the tests are mostly reserved for people who have showed symptoms or for people who happened to be in close-contact with patient tested positive for COVID-19.   

Certification meant the person is free from COVID-19 at the time of the test. As the person may contract COVID-19 after the test, the validity of the certificate could not be too long. When the person (holding the certificate) is taking the flight back home, his certificate may no longer valid.

Lacking of certificate, the person may need to get test from local health system.  Local government may not be too kind for visitors as they need to prioritize local residents, imposing high cost for such test. There is also a certain level of uncertainties, if the test showed positive, the trip home is no longer possible and the person would need to spend additional days in hospital.

The flight itself would be different.

Planes are not designed for social distancing in-mind. Faced with requirements for social distancing, airlines need to separate the passengers by having empty seats between them.  However, there has not been any consensus on how far the distance is; the problem is the distance has major impact to airlines and passengers.

The easy solution is to have one empty seat between passengers.  In a standard economy class of the Airbus 350 (with 9 abreast seats) means a load reduction of 33%. Passengers may have to fork out the same extra percentage for the airfare.  However, if local authority insists for bigger gap, such as a 1-meter gap, there could be only 3 passengers for every 3 rows of standard Airbus 350; a reduction of almost 90% of loads.  This arrangement would make air ticket out-of-reach for many people; less people would be able to travel, less income for airlines.

Budget airlines, such as Air-Asia group, FR, WN, would also face additional pressure. Those airlines depend on quick turn-around so that it could maximize their fleet by having as many flights as possible in a day. However, with the requirements to disinfectant the cabin before flight, it is no longer possible to do a 25-minute turn-around.  More time is also needed for passengers to embark and disembark, such as by ensuring passengers seated at the back do no pass passengers seated at the front. Planes need to sit longer on the tarmac, which means less flights which is translated to higher cost.

For airlines that depend heavily on transit passengers and without domestic market such as SQ, EK and QR, border closure created another set of problem. Those airlines have no domestic market; even though the countries (where those airlines are based) are rich, they have small population which means a limited market for O&D (Origin and Destination). Those airlines instead depend heavily on picking up passengers from many countries to their hubs (such as SIN for SQ) and flying them to their destinations out of their hubs.

With countries closing its border, practically there is no market for those airlines to fly to.  When countries start to open up its border, it may not be immediately beneficial to SQ, QR or EK as each country opens its border at different time and may be in the wrong side of its network.

For example, the famous Kangaroo route would not make sense if only Australia and New Zealand opens its borders.  SQ, QR and EK need countries Australian likely to visit like the UK or North Asia countries to also open up its borders. 

For SQ, even if many countries in SQ’s network open up its borders, SQ may not be able to exploit it due to the situation in its hub, SIN.  Until Singapore showed it could control COVID-19 situation, many countries may ban travel or transiting via Singapore, which in effect banning SQ from carrying passengers from their countries.

Controlling the spread of COVID-19 may allow Singapore to establish open border with other countries that are also able to control COVID-19, similar to proposed travel-bubble between Australia and New Zealand. Such open border would allow free travel, potentially without the need for quarantine control.

The time when SIN opens for transit passengers is also important.  If other hubs like DOH and DXB open up earlier than SIN, those hubs would simply siphon away the limited number of passengers away from SQ and SIN.

Airlines are in difficult position. It needs passengers, but it could not easily stimulate demands by lowering the fare because doing so would simply suicidal – even with government’s support – as the fare would not cover the cost. And this still with assumptions that people are still flying and there is a relaxation of border and quarantine control.  With economy grinds to halt due to lock-down, many people are out-of-job or have less incomes.  People and business would prioritize what essentials for them; travelling, either for leisure or business, would be lower in the priority list.

With less passengers, airlines would become smaller. Airlines will need to reduce frequency, close or suspend some routes and reduce its fleets and manpower. Many airlines would not survive with consolidations, government-support [] and bankruptcy would become common. 

It is clearly difficult time for airlines, airports and passengers.  For passengers who have their flights disrupted, many airlines offered credits rather than reimbursements.  Airlines need to preserve the cash; and offering credits is the way to preserve the cash.  However, it means passengers (including me) now become creditors to airlines. The credits may worth zero either due to time-limit or the airlines is totally gone under. Best outcome would be to utilise the credits after the whole COVID-19 is over but perhaps with less value as the ticket fare may increase due to social-distracting requirement.

It is heart-wrenching to me (who have strong interest in aviation industry) to see so many planes parked in the airports through out the world.  No doubt we, as human, could overcome COVID-19 but it will take years and during and after that period, the aviation industry would be different.

As for my family’s holiday; I don’t think we can fly to New Zealand, soon.  With so much uncertainties, staying put perhaps the best options.

Great Experience with NZeTA App

Many countries now require visitors from supposed-to-be visa-free countries to apply for ETA (Electronic Travel Authority) or similar scheme before entering the country.

ETA is easier to obtain as compared to the visa.  The former requires only online submission and the results would be made available within a short time, a few days max. However, filling up the form for the ETA – especially for the USA – may be quite daunting.  It is not difficult but simply time consuming.

Until I applied for ETA for New Zealand, NZeTA.  From 1 October 2019 New Zealand will require visitors from visa-free countries to obtain NZeTA prior to the travel.

The New Zealand Immigration provided two options to apply NZeTA: through web or mobile app.  Interestingly, it costs NZD 3 less to apply using the app as compared to the web.  Out of curiosity I chose to apply using the app.

Searching the on Google App Store (well, I am an Android user) app was easy.  The installation was a breeze without any issues.

The application process was surprisingly easy.  Upon opening the app, I was prompted with the welcome page.

Followed by acknowledgement for the usual privacy and term and use.

The next step caught me a bit off guard. It prompted me to take a picture of the passport.

However, rather than taking the picture of the whole passport, the app actually scanned the Machine-Readable Zone (MRZ) area. The screen would show a blue bar where you should align the MRZ. As a result, capturing the MRZ was a breeze!

The next step was quite interesting, it asked me to do selfie!

It took me a few attempts to do the selfie. Once completed, the app displayed the information captured from the MRZ, with the picture on the top-left corner. It asked me to confirm the details.

After that, the app asked a series of questions, starting from whether I want to stay in NZ or coming as a transit passenger, whether I am an Australian permanent resident, and so on. Interestingly, the ‘expected’ answer is always highlighted.

After answering all the questions, I proceeded to pay the ETA and the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL). The payment was done using credit card and it was a fuzz free. I did not use the feature to take picture of the credit card – which I believe would help me to key-in the credit card details; I chose to key-in the card details myself. The only missing is there was no 2 FA for the credit card transaction.

And that’s it! The whole process was completed in less than 10 minutes, all from within the app itself. It was a great experience!

The app made it easy for anyone who applied for NZeTA. There was no need to upload any additional documents or pictures. The app also reduces or even eliminates error by using MRZ to fill up the details; no need for the applicant to type all the details manually.

The selfie is also interesting. There is no need for the applicant to rush to to instant photo booth or photo studio to take the picture, which would delay the whole application process.

The app practically eliminates all frictions in applying the NZeTA. It is a great innovation from The New Zealand Immigration. As a citizen, friction-less transactions such as what the app offered is the one I am looking for when transacting with the Government; and as a public servant such app is the yardstick for a good Government eServices.

Cold Call

In my work, it is a ‘routine’ for me to receive cold calls from some companies.  The callers either tried to promote their companies or services, did a survey or wanted to send a ‘free’ white paper. Companies could easily find out about my DID number because my number (and so are all my colleagues in the company) is published on the Internet.

Such calls are really annoying.  Firstly, unlike junk SMS or junk emails/mails, you cannot simply ignore incoming calls.  Even though the calls are from the numbers you don’t know, you don’t know what’s the call about until you pick up the call and listen to what the caller says. It can be disruptive, especially when you are in the middle of work that requires concentration.

I always asked the caller to email me the information and then end the call.  I don’t mind to give them my email address, I could simply read those materials anytime or quickly delete them if I don’t find it useful. If I find the materials or services are relevant to me, I would call or email the company for more information.

However, most of callers did not want to stop at email address.  They continued asking questions regarding the IT in my company.  The main issue with such calls is I have no way to verify the caller.  I am acutely aware about social engineering. The caller may be claiming from one company, but what he wanted is to gain insight on my IT infrastructure; such insight may be useful for them to penetrate the IT system.

It does not help that I noticed number of such calls surged after I changed portfolio from Application to Infrastructure.  Every day, without fail, I received at least one such cold call.

I prefer to be safe than sorry. I usually asked the caller to drop me email for the questions.  If they insisted to continue with questions over the phone, I simply hung up.

But sometimes the callers can be quite daring.  One day I received a call claiming that my CIO (Chief Information Officer) had a meeting with his company and my CIO asked him to call me.  What puzzled me that the company has been a long vendor with us and my ICO and I just met with their management a week earlier.  He asked some questions regarding our infrastructure and he became impatient when I declined to give any information.  He even threatened me that he would let my CIO knows that I was not cooperative.

A few minutes later my colleague across the table received the call and from his replies, I could deduce he received similar calls and I quickly gave me the notes that the call should be terminated. Everybody in the division was alerted and true enough almost everyone received such call.

It did not stop there, one month later I received similar call, this time claiming that my Assistant Managing Director (AMD) was the one who asked him to call me.  Same pattern, same alert ringing across the division.  I joked that at that rate soon the caller would claim that my MD and later chairman asked him to call us.  It did not happen, though.