The Seamless Asean Sky is a critical component of the Asean Economic Community (AEC). With its world-class aviation industry and central location, Malaysia has played a leading role in pursuing the notion of having a single sky in Asean. Therefore, as Anthony Loke settles into his new job as transport minister, one of his top priorities should be progressing the seamless skies policy in Asean. With Malaysia as chair of the Asean Air Transport Working Group, this is a great opportunity to show Malaysia’s leadership in delivering jobs and growth in the region.
Much has already been achieved and intra-Asean traffic has been growing significantly. According to the World Bank and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (see graph), we can see that passenger traffic grew substantially from 2009, with Indonesia in first place and Malaysia in third. As a result of this substantial growth, some Asean city pairs are now ranked among the busiest international routes worldwide. The busiest route in the world is Kuala Lumpur-Singapore with a frequency of more than 30,000 flights a year and it ranks 14th among the top 20 busiest routes in Asia. This growth has been crucial for economic development in the region, but we can go even further.
Having a seamless sky in Asean — linking the aviation markets of 10 different countries to support new airlines, cheaper airfares and more jobs — is a bold vision. However, we all know that to make bold visions become concrete realities, we need substantial commitment in implementation. Now, almost a decade since the original agreements were signed, the dream of a single Asean sky is in danger of looking like an illusion. But it is not too late, and we can still make this vision a reality.
Although Asean has signed three multilateral agreements on air transport, we have yet to achieve a single sky in the region. With the introduction of AEC Blueprint 2025, Asean is now looking at a higher level of integration in air transport. The blueprint is gearing towards higher connectivity, efficiency, integration, safety and sustainability in Asean’s air transport industry to strengthen the region’s economy. However, the AEC did not come up with details.
So what needs to happen? First, a common aviation market needs common aviation rules. In other words, aviation regulations need to be harmonised so that airlines can operate seamlessly in different countries. For example, a well-trained, experienced and qualified pilot from Malaysia should be able to work in all Asean countries and airlines without having to retake qualification exams.
Harmonising regulations does not necessarily mean uniform regulations, but the member countries need to harmonise to a sufficient degree to allow this kind of cross-border enforcement cooperation. There are already some agreements in place to achieve this, but we have yet to see them have real force in Asean. So we propose that Asean agrees on a roadmap to harmonise national regulations to make this cooperation a practical reality.
Second, harmonised regulations need a harmonised regulator: a single agency that can implement enhanced regulations and oversee safety across all countries. This is the case in the EU — the best example of a single aviation market. There are some simple steps that Asean can take. We propose that the institutional arrangement be revised to require the director-generals of every civil aviation authority in Asean to collaborate and manage the harmonisation of regulation throughout the year, supported by a dedicated working group. We believe these simple steps can put Asean back on the path to a single aviation market.
The aviation sector in Asean generates about US$307.14 billion annually, or 12% of Asean’s gross domestic product. This industry creates millions of jobs in the region and draws billions of dollars of investments. If Asean does not step up its game, aviation players from larger economies stand to benefit more from our markets.
We need to work together and share the same sky to gain mutual benefits. Priority should be placed on collaboration rather than competition. It is time to realise the Asean motto of “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”.
Adli Amirullah is an economist at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas)