Vietnam Airlines’ dream of a direct commercial flight to the US is being quickened as a way to shelter from the financial trouble amid the pandemic, with repatriation flights being the pre-runner for future non-stop journeys across the Pacific Ocean.
|A direct flight from Vietnam to the US has been in discussion for a long time – the realisation would support trade relations for both countries.|
Vietnam Airlines last week said that the plan to resume regular direct flights to the US to serve large repatriation needs of the Vietnamese community there, with a vision to operate commercial flights from 2022 onwards, has been submitted to the Board of Directors.
Dinh Viet Thang, director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) told VIR, “Vietnam Airlines meets most of the requirements of the US authorities. There is only one requirement from the Transportation Security Administration. Normally, it takes about six months to complete this procedure, but we are working to shorten it to 3-4 months.”
The plan will include two phases, with the first stage starting immediately after Vietnam Airlines completes all legal procedures for flight permits from the US authorities, until it fully serves all Vietnamese who want to be repatriated.
Milestones of the Vietnam-US direct flight journey
In 2003, Vietnam and the United States signed an agreement on aviation cooperation, allowing airlines from both countries to open direct flights with a frequency of one flight per day.
In 2010, the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) reviewed and reassessed the agreement, concluding that there were no restrictions or obstacles on passengers, flight frequency, and others areas to apply for permission to open flights connecting the two countries.
In February 2019, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted a Category 1 rating (CAT 1) to Vietnam. The status is based on an August 2018 FAA assessment of the safety oversight provided by the CAAV, and is a technical prerequisite for Vietnamese airlines to fly to the US. The assessment and preparation process to achieve FAA Category 1 began back in 2010.
In September 2019, the US Department of Transportation issued permission for the transportation of people and packages from Vietnam to the US through Vietnam Airlines. Accordingly, the airline is allowed to transport people, property, and mail between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam, via the intermediate points of Taipei, Osaka, and Nagoya, and then the US co-terminal points of Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and Dallas, and beyond to Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto in Canada.
Additionally, Vietnam Airlines is also permitted to transport people, property, and mail from points outside the country via Vietnam and intermediate points to 25 co-terminal US points and beyond, on a code-share basis only with an authorised US or third-country carrier.
In 2020, Vietnam Airlines carried out a total of 12 repatriation direct flights as permitted by American aviation authorities.
Le Hong Ha, general director of Vietnam Airlines, said the airline plans to open regular commercial flights to and from the US, first serving the repatriation needs of Vietnamese people, and travel between both nations for diplomats, civil servants, experts, and businesspeople, as well as students and foreign relatives.
Vietnam Airlines makes the move in the context that the global aviation market is projected to recover to the performances of 2019 by 2023 at the earliest. Moreover, a surplus of wide-body aircraft will continue at Vietnam Airlines and globally by then.
Ha said that this is the appropriate time to continue using the wide-bodied Boeing Dreamliner. The airline expects this move will help increase revenue and minimise financial damage amid serious impacts of the pandemic. Vietnam Airlines incurred a loss of over VND11.1 trillion ($483 million) in 2020 after COVID-19 practically grounded all its international flights.
Between May and August last year, Vietnam Airlines carried out a total of 12 repatriation flights as permitted by American aviation authorities to bring Vietnamese citizens home. While the number of those who wish to return home continues to rise, the national carrier has already used up the flight quota allowed by US authorities since August 2020. The airline now sees the plan, as well as the ongoing market assessment and preparation, as necessary factors to enter the second phase to realise its dream of long-awaited direct flights to the US.
Vietnam Airlines has been weathering technical and commercial challenges over the last 10 years. The carrier’s plan entered the next stage as the US Federal Aviation Administration issued a Category 1 rating to the CAAV under its International Aviation Safety Assessment programme in 2019, confirming the necessary safety standards to operate flights to the US. The Hanoi-based airline also got the green light to operate direct flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to several American destinations in September 2019.
Nguyen Anh Tuan, Deputy Minister of Transport, told VIR, “The ministry welcomes the direct flights to the US and is willing to support Vietnam Airlines in completing all necessary procedures.” He added, “At present, Vietnam’s flights to the US have to transit in a third country. Therefore, a direct route would have significant meaning, facilitating air travelling between the countries and tightening transport cooperation.”
In 2020, bilateral trade between both nations hit over $90 billion. The US is Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner, only behind China, and is Southeast Asia’s biggest export market. Industry insiders forecast that the figures would continue to increase in the months to come, led by the growing demand for air travelling. According to Airbus’ forecast for 2019, the market capacity of the Ho Chi Minh City-Los Angeles route could reach 136,000 arrivals and could climb by 18-20 per cent from the time direct flights become operational.
Dang Anh Tuan - Director of Corporate Communications Department, Vietnam Airlines
Since then, Vietnam Airlines has been continuing to apply for many licences at competent agencies of the US, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Security Administration, US Customs and Border Protection, National Transportation Safety Board, and many others. As of March, Vietnam Airlines estimates to have completed about 90 per cent of the work schedule.
Vietnam Airlines plans to deploy the US flight plan in two phases. In the first, flights will be opened in the form of regular commercial operations to mainly serve Vietnamese repatriation needs; foreign experts to Vietnam to serve economic and social development; and guests wishing to return to the US to study and work.
This is the phase for testing flights, carrying out market research, and preparing facilities for the next official step. The second phase will be evaluated and implemented after entry restrictions and quarantine measures are removed and the pandemic situation is completely under control. It is hoped the flight plan can move to phase 2 by 2022.
The US is a huge market with passenger capacity of more than 700,000 passengers per year. With direct routes helping to shorten flight times, Vietnam Airlines will have a more competitive advantage of being the only non-stop airline in the market, especially in the ability to reach high-spending passengers with high demand for shortening the travel time on board.
Exploring a direct route between Vietnam and the US will also help Vietnam Airlines take full use of its aircraft operations and bring significant revenues to the airline.
Furthermore, the expansion will help improve its brand value on the global aviation map while contributing to strengthening the relationship between the two countries.
The Board of Directors of Vietnam Airlines has unexpectedly approved a plan to resume direct flights from Vietnam to the US.