Faculty Feature

Professor Alan Tan
The Sky’s the Limit

Professor Alan Tan '93 is NUS Law's resident authority on Aviation Law. He has also been an adviser to governments and airlines on liberalising the aviation industry. He has written and published extensively on aviation law and policy issues in Asia and has worked with the World Bank, the ASEAN Secretariat, the governments of China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka and airlines such as AirAsia and Royal Brunei. Born in Penang, Malaysia, Alan first came to Singapore as an ASEAN Scholar and subsequently studied at NUS and Yale. Apart from a secondment to the Supreme Court as a Justices' Law Clerk, Alan has spent his entire professional life with NUS Law, with a teaching stint at New York University. Alan also enjoys teaching Criminal Law to first-year students, and recently wrote a poem dedicated to all his students

We talked to Professor Tan about his aviation law work. 


How did you get into Aviation Law? 

I got into it largely by choice and design. In the earlier part of my academic career, I was already specializing in Maritime Law, having written my doctoral thesis at Yale on the politics of regulating the shipping industry.  

I have always loved flying, and imagined from an early age that I would either run my own airline in Penang (where I grew up), or be in charge of branding it. Thus, when the chance arose at NUS Law to develop the aviation law course, you could say I flew straight into it!  

The transition from shipping to aviation was a natural one, given that many of the issues are common to both modes of transportation. In fact, a large body of aviation principles is derived from the maritime world - shipping, of course, being the older industry. 


What have been some of the highlights of your career?

I love teaching my aviation and criminal law courses, and I thoroughly enjoy the company of my students, particularly those who speak up and can hold a conversation. It doesn't even matter if I have not taught them. So that's one highlight - I look forward to every class, and to the next class after that. For Aviation Law, my students take it out of pure interest to fly and travel, so it's great to compare notes on the new airlines they've traveled on, the funny routes that some airlines take to avoid conflict zones or unfriendly airspace, what passengers' rights are should their flights be cancelled or delayed, and of course, pet peeves on lousy service. The students still send me notes even after completing the course. 

Oh yes, I've recently also persuaded Scoot Airlines to sponsor a ticket to any destination in its network for the best Aviation Law student!  

On the research and consultancy side, one highlight has been my contribution to the development of a liberalized aviation market in Asia generally, including the ASEAN Single Aviation Market or "ASEAN Open Skies" as it is popularly known. To this end, I've had the opportunity to advise airlines such as AirAsia, Royal Brunei and Cebu Pacific, as well as states like Indonesia and China on their aviation policies.  

I recently worked with China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) on their preferred stance toward airline joint ventures that might have anti-competitive effects. The intersection between aviation and competition law is intriguing, and I consider advising states and their airlines a great yardstick for academic relevance.  


What are some of the pressing issues in Aviation Law today?

In one word: protectionism. Airlines worldwide remain the pride of their nations. In fact, nothing symbolises national pride better than an airline, even a failing one that is badly managed and bleeding money! States thus practice rampant protectionism to subsidise and shield their carriers from competition, even if this is at a huge cost to their poor taxpayer. We see it everywhere, including in Asia and even in the developed countries in the West. This is a major problem that hinders the development of the industry.  

Protectionism by states leads, for example, to foreign airlines being shut out of certain routes. This results in reduced competition, poorer choice for consumers and higher prices all round. For Asia and ASEAN, I have helped to research and advocate the legal and policy arguments for a more liberalised environment that would allow the likes of Singapore Airlines to have greater market access in the broader region. But of course, this is resented by our bigger neighbours who want to protect their own carriers.  

In that regard, being an academic has its advantages - I can profess to be wholly objective but sometimes, it is unavoidable that I am met with a comment like: "But you're from Singapore, strong carrier,  joke of a domestic market - isn't that just what you'd say!!" But I retort - "Mark my words, a liberalised, more competitive environment will be good for your airlines in turn!" So overcoming protectionism is a major issue.


Air travel today is far more accessible than it has ever been. What do you think are the opportunities for Southeast Asia’s aviation industry?

The low-cost or budget airline sector is now a formidable force, and is no doubt the future of regional aviation due to its affordability. Today, more than 60 percent of travel within Southeast Asia has been cornered by low-cost carriers such as AirAsia, Lion, Cebu Pacific, VietJet, Jetstar Asia and Tiger. To me, this is the singular factor that is driving ASEAN integration - the peoples of the region are coming closer together because they now find it affordable and meaningful to visit one another. Nothing could be better for our regional tourism. In time, aviation will even help build an ASEAN identity! 

And yet, there is still upswing potential. There are literally hundreds more destinations in Southeast Asia we could be flying to direct - beautiful places like Palawan, Ambon, Battambang, Phu Quoc, Khon Kaen, Sandakan, Moulmein - the list is endless! Top of my list is Palawan in the Philippines.


What would you advise students who are considering a specialisation in Aviation Law?

There is much scope in the field of aviation financing, which is much about structuring deals to purchase or lease aircraft. At the same time, there is some potential in legal and regulatory work, particularly in the airlines and civil aviation authorities. However, litigation involving injured passengers is still quite a small field in Singapore. Overall, aviation is a growing area that holds much promise, so your career in aviation is bound to take flight!