By Choi Kyong-ae
SEOUL, May 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will consider providing an additional helping hand to airlines if the new coronavirus outbreak continues to hurt the airline industry, a senior transport official has said.
The country's two state-run lenders -- the Korea Development Bank and the Korea Export-Import Bank of Korea -- announced last month they will inject a combined 2.9 trillion won (US$2.3 billion) into Korean Air Lines Co. and Asiana Airlines Inc., which have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We will ask for an additional financial package from the financial authorities for the airlines if the coronavirus outbreak continues," Transport Vice Minister Son Myoung-soo told Yonhap News Agency in a recent interview.
The government believes the virus-hit airline industry should be put back on track as it is a backbone of the national economy, Son said.
In February, the two lenders said it will inject 300 billion won to help low-cost carriers stay afloat, with the government to consider additional emergency financial aid in case of a prolonged coronavirus crisis.
Still, the government's packages for the local airlines -- two full-service and seven low-cost ones -- appear not to be enough to help them continue operations until the coronavirus outbreak slows down.
Local airlines have suspended most of their flights on international routes since March as an increasing number of countries have strengthened entry restrictions amid virus fears.
Airlines are set to report poor earnings results for the year although they plan to resume flights on some international routes in June or July to absorb cargo-carrying demand and inbound Koreans.
Korean Air's net losses widened to 737 billion won (US$598 million) in the first quarter from 117 billion won a year earlier. Asiana's net losses also deepened to 683.26 billion won from 89.18 billion won during the same period.
South Korea also seeks to capitalize on its fast and effective quarantine measures at airports as a leverage to have a greater say in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an UN-affiliated organization that sets general rules for international aviation and coordinates interests among member countries.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport launched a task force team early this month to get a high membership tier in the ICAO Council.
Korea became a member state of ICAO in 1952 and was elected as a council member state in 2001. ICAO has a membership of 193 countries.
The council is ICAO's de facto decision-making body, composed of 36 member states of three tier groups -- parts I, II and III. The top tier group includes the United States, China and Japan, while South Korea is in the part III group.
"ICAO is moving to increase the number of council member states to 40. In coming years, we are targeting to be included in the part I or II group by promoting the fact Korea ranks sixth in air transport and 11th in financial contribution to ICAO," Son said.
Moreover, Seoul plans to promote its cutting-edge and well-organized anti-virus system, which is cited as the "best practice" by ICAO at Incheon International Airport to gain a higher tier at the council, the official said.
To help airlines resume more flights, the government will actively share with the international community South Korea's strict quarantine model named the K-Quarantine, which has been globally praised for its quick and effective response to the pandemic.
In South Korea, the caseload reached 11,344 on Thursday, with the virus-related death toll standing at 269.