The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in the international aviation industry and the impacts are still being felt by airliners the world over. Even during the time of crisis, companies like Buddha Air managed to stay afloat due to the extraordinary determination of their leadership and effective management. Birendra Bahadur Basnet is the Managing Director of Buddha Air who has led the company from its inception in 1997 starting from a Beechcraft 1900D aircraft. In terms of passenger carried, the company is the largest domestic carrier in Nepal operating a fleet of 16 planes currently. In a conversation with the HRM, Basnet talked about his experiences in managing the company during the pandemic, expansion plans, and prospects of travel and tourism post-Covid. Excerpts:
With the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly subsiding, activities in aviation are gaining traction. How did Buddha Air manage to survive and come out from this extreme adversity?
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the Nepali aviation industry, internationally as well as domestically. Remote and helicopter services were adversely affected but the trunk route sector survived.
In Buddha Air’s case, I would say, the crisis gave way to creative disruption. Despite an adverse situation at that time when our aircraft were grounded for eight months, we stayed afloat. We also did not default in loan repayment.
We added two new aircraft to our fleet during the lockdown period. Besides, we also increased flight numbers during this period. Despite not having mountain flights at present, now daily operation begins at 6.30 am and ends at around 10.30 pm. This clearly illustrates the utilization of the aircraft has increased tremendously. The daily passengers at Buddha Air during the pre-Covid period used to be 4,500-5,000 which includes 700-800 foreign tourists. Now we’re flying 8,000-8,500 people daily which does not include foreign tourists.
Along with increment in flight and the addition of aircraft, we also cut down unnecessary expenses. Now, I can say Buddha Air is in a buoyant mood.
How is Buddha Air moving ahead with the recovery in the aviation sector? How do you see the prospects of a revival in Nepal’s domestic travel and tourism?
For us, the biggest gain post-pandemic is the growth in the number of Nepali passengers or domestic air travelers. And, we do not want to lose this gain. This means Buddha Air must increase its seat capacity and aircraft number. This is because there will be tremendous growth in tourist arrivals. Both the arrival of visitors from India and third countries in Nepal are likely to increase. That is why we are adding new aircraft to our fleet. We added a new aircraft recently and negotiation to purchase three planes is at the final stage. Then, we are planning to add two more aircraft to our fleet by 2023.
Buddha Air has recently started connecting Pokhara with border towns such as Janakpur and Dhangadi. What is the rationale behind this new initiative?
We believe this new strategy i.e., connecting border towns with Pokhara as a base will be our next growth story. We’ve recently connected Janakpur and Dhangadi with Pokhara. The reception of these flights has been very encouraging. Now, we’ll start Pokhara-Bhadrapur and Pokhara-Nepalgunj flights also. The ATR-72 will be used in these routes.
Given the natural resources and beauty the Gandaki Province offers and the tourism infrastructures it has, we believe if we can connect these cities with Pokhara, it will help us attract Indian tourists to this beautiful lake city.
With the construction of a new international airport in Pokhara nearing completion, Buddha Air is making Pokhara is it’s another hub after Kathmandu. Once the new airport comes into operation, we will station four aircraft in Pokhara apart from the Twin Otter which we plan to procure in the future. We plan to start Pokhara-New Delhi and Pokhara-Dehradun flights. We are also developing our business infrastructure in Pokhara. There will be a full-fledged office of Buddha Holidays in the city.
What bright spots and challenges do you observe in Nepal’s travel and tourism revival?
The bright spot is tremendous growth in domestic air travelers and domestic tourists. The fact that hotels in Nepal managed to survive somehow during the pandemic is basically due to domestic tourists. In fact, the pandemic has redefined domestic tourism.
With the pandemic subsiding and easing of international travel, Nepal will see exponential arrivals of foreigners who’re forced to stay inside their homes and cities for the last two years. This arrival will normalize after some time. However, Nepal still can attract large tourist numbers if we can efficiently manage our tourism infrastructure, mainly international airports.
With two new airports coming into operation in near future, the onus lies on us to use three international airports smartly. How we will be able to utilize these three airports will define the future of the Nepali tourism industry. The challenge here is the effective utilization of the existing and new international airports and how fast we can bring the new airports into operation.
What do you think is needed to be done to make the new airports ‘game-changer’ in Nepal’s international and domestic air connectivity?
Given the delay in the completion of the construction of the airports in Bhairahawa and Pokhara, the first condition is to ensure the timely operation of the new facilities. We have been hearing that none of the international airlines are ready to fly to the airport in Bhairahawa. And, there is also the issue of the air route with India regarding this airport.
The Pokhara International Airport was scheduled for operation in June 2021. But given the hurdles in its construction due to the pandemic and other factors, there are doubts that the new airport would come into operation by 2023. Many outstanding issues need to be sorted out beforehand.
If we can use the international airport in Bhairahawa for the abroad travel of migrant workers and Pokhara airport for catering tourists, then it would ease the congestion of the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) considerably. If the issues are sorted out, then there is no doubt the new airports could be game-changers for Nepal’s air connectivity. I think if the two new airports along with TIA are operated effectively, we can attract 5 million tourists annually.
How is Buddha Air expanding its current fleet to reach out to new destinations? A few months ago, you shared plans to operate flights to remote parts of the country by 2023 under a separate company. How is this plan moving ahead? What prompted Buddha Air to go to operate flights to remote areas?
We are currently in negotiation to acquire three aircraft. After the acquisition, there will be 19 ATRs and two Beechcraft 1900 in our fleet. The idea of going to the remote sector is to diversify our business. Once we have 21 aircraft, we will consolidate our position in trunk routes. For Buddha Air, the new area to diversify is to go to Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) routes.
Buddha Air’s experience in international flights has been quite not successful. Post Covid-19, how international routes expansion of the Buddha Air will take shape?
While we have now a fair share of experience in international flights, the overall experience has not been so well as per our expectations. The Kathmandu-Kolkata flights did not go well. While we are currently operating two flights in a week to the Kathmandu-Benaras sector, this is basically to keep our international flight operation license intact.
Now, we are planning for the Pokhara-Delhi flight. If this goes well, it will give us the confidence to further expand our international flights.
Nepal has traditionally relied on two source markets – India and China heavily for its tourism. Don’t you think we need to review this strategy and move beyond these two countries?
If we want to increase the number of tourists, we cannot rely on India and China only for visitors. We need to explore beyond the conventional source markets.
Because of the pandemic and strict travel-related regulations China currently has in place, I don’t think we will see Chinese tourists coming to Nepal before 2023. While India has been a huge source market for us, Indian tourists have options. We need to focus on middle-class tourists from India who are also being wooed by countries such as Thailand.