AirSWIFT has reopened its Cebu to El Nido service to accommodate domestic passengers, which would help the town’s tourism industry recover.
Despite the threat posed by the COVID-19 Omicron variant, the management of the regional boutique airline company feels that restoring interconnectivity is critical to helping El Nido reclaim its tourism economy.
Connecting links from Cebu to El Nido, according to AirSWIFT President and CEO Alfonso Javier-Reyes, is critical to their aviation business since Cebu serves as a major international traffic hub during the pre-pandemic period. It is also AirSWIFT’s second most important route after its “bread and butter” Manila to El Nido link.
He said 50 percent of AirSWIFT’s passengers in 2019 traveled from Manila to El Nido, making the area its hub. The remaining half came from other routes connecting to El Nido.
“When we first started expanding and branching out away from our bread and butter Manila to El Nido route, Cebu was the very first route we opened. It became next to the Manila to El Nido route, the second strongest route that we had,” he said.
“It’s a very important connection for us, and again, as things progressed and opened up, we expected it will again continue to be the second most important route for us. Looking forward to next year, we hope to be able to increase the traffic from Cebu. Increase the flights we fly per week from Cebu, as much as we would like to go back to daily flights, the volume isn’t just there yet,” he added.
As part of the Ayala Land Group, AirSWIFT provides a bubble travel method for tourists at a number of El Nido Resorts, as licensed by the Department of Tourism (DOT).
Reyes said that now that things are opening up, they have restarted their daily flights from Manila to El Nido since the middle of November.
The biggest development, according to him, is the nationwide acceleration of vaccinations, which caused local government units (LGUs) to approve allowing fully vaccinated visitors to travel even without negative RT-PCR test results.
“Napakalaking tulong, kasi when you compare the cost of [RT] PCR test and the cost of your round-trip ticket, napakalaking additional burden ng [RT] PCR test. Of course, we understood kung bakit kailangan siya but now that marami nang vaccinated and it’s being recognized by the local government, that’s really helping,” he said.
Pandemic impact on the aviation industry
Reyes acknowledged that the pandemic is a difficult moment for all airlines, including AirSWIFT because the aviation sector relies on passengers whose travels were hampered by COVID-19.
“We have been one of the hardest hit because the entire business depends on people moving around and that’s what the lockdowns have done. What COVID-19 has done is to prevent all that. Borders have closed so international borders remained closed to tourism and we are only starting to ease up locally and start to see some domestic movement,” he said.
He claimed that maintaining the organization intact was necessary until the industry had fully recovered.
Domestic aviation is always a core part of restoring the tourism industry in countries where economic activity is dependent, he said. In the heyday of online enterprises as part of electronic commerce, cargoes sent via airlines serve as yet another essential role of aviation in catastrophic events.
“We just hope that the momentum we are seeing now as we approach the Christmas and holiday season is something that we can maintain even after. And we are able to control other variants effectively. Aviation is very critical,” he said.
Coping with the changes
AirSWIFT has always been focused on health and safety, including during the early stages of the pandemic, when operating charter flights to rescue trapped foreign visitors for repatriation, and for other companies.
“Our safety protocols have always been very strict. So, we make sure for example that the entire crew is always PCR tested before flight. Of course, the usual PPEs, all of the sanitation in the cabin thorough cleaning before all flights. We were the only airline to actually implement the safety barriers in between seats as an additional precaution. In addition to of course wearing a mask, face shield,” he said.
AirSWIFT’s planes have a capacity of 48 and 72 seats, but it is now averaging over 50% because the market is still recovering, he added. According to records, 70% of the airline’s passengers traveled from abroad in 2019.
In the presence of the new variant Omicron, Reyes expressed optimism that the country would not be shut down again in 2022.
“As things have improved, we are now seeing some flights getting a little bit full but not all. It’s happening, we are getting there but we’re still a long way away from 2019 of course. Because international borders to a large extent still remain close to tourism,” he said.
“We are hopeful, I guess we are cautiously optimistic but there are also I guess things to continue worrying about. There’s a new variant again that is spreading and causing further shutdowns and lockdowns in Europe and other places around the world. We hope na hindi naman mangyari sa atin uli,” he added.
After reopening the Cebu-El Nido route with 26 passengers on Friday, December 3, AirSWIFT will fly every Monday and Friday.
“It really all depends on also the amount of inbound traffic that Cebu is able to bring. Because part of our market here is of course is the central Visayan market who will fly out Cebu but based there. But the other aspect of it which will really be key to the growth is when they also open up to international tourism,” he said.
Reopening of the route for El Nido resorts
AirSWIFT assists in the transfer of passengers from various locations to El Nido destinations, which helps to fill the town’s hotels and resorts.
Seda, like other hotels, was impacted by the lack of guests due to travel restrictions, according to Ayala Land Hotels and Resorts Group general manager Brett Patrick Hickey.
Hickey said Seda changed its business model in response to the pandemic. To optimize its manpower, the hotel requires every staff, including those in positions of authority, to perform additional duties to serve the demands of the visitors.
No longer requiring negative RT-PCR test results, he said, will help the leisure sector recovery and the community of Seda.
He noted that the management has recently noticed an increase in booking traffic to El Nido as a result of the relaxation of restrictions. To maintain safety within the resort, the management conducts antigen testing on all employees once a week to create the safest environment possible, particularly in bubble tourism.
“It’s crucial. Being able to open another part of the country, traveling a 90-minute flight to get here. That’s exactly what we are looking for, we are excited about that. Also, for the opportunity for people to be able to go from Manila to El Nido, to Cebu, and back again. It gives people more opportunity to staycation in their own country,” he said.
Angkla Beach Club & Boutique Resort soft-opened its beach club to visitors and tourists five days before the 2020 lockdown. Mayrel Einna Aisy Andrada, assistant general manager, said that the management was left with no alternative but to comply with the government’s shutdown order.
The resort and its 16 rooms were reopened in December 2020, but the pandemic remained. Nobody was aware COVID-19 would continue indefinitely, she added.
“Ang hirap kasi kaka-open pa lang namin, tapos ang inventories namin bago lahat, marami kasi ini-expect namin na pa-peak season. Super unexpected din ng pandemic, walang nakaisip na ganoon magtatagal. Kaya challenging talaga siya,” she said.
Local guests from Palawan cannot sustain the resort’s existence, as domestic travelers account for 90% of its customers. Additionally, the lack of AirSWIFT flights results in no bookings for Angkla, she added.
The resort became more accommodating with rebookings in light of the procedure revisions that eliminated the charges.
Because AirSWIFT is the only airline that transports tourists to El Nido resorts such as Angkla, the reinstatement of the airline’s second strongest link will also benefit resort traffic.
The resort also established a holding area and luggage disinfection room through UV light to ensure the safety of every guest and staff within Angkla.