Buddha Air prepares international trial with Kolkata flight

  • expanding wings
- SANGAM PRASAIN, Kathmandu

Jan 17, 2019-

Private carrier Buddha Air announced on Wednesday, three weekly flights on the Kathmandu-Kolkata route from April 15, as part of its early preparation to enter long-haul international markets by August 2020. 

Buddha will operate in Kolkata—an artistic and cultural hub and the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal—on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays using its short-haul regional airliner ATR 72. 

“The cross-border flight will be our trial. The success of this flight will lead us to expand our wings to more Indian cities before we launch our long-haul international routes,” Birendra Bahadur Basnet, managing director of Buddha Air, told a press conference on Wednesday. 

“The three flights will generate 180 seats per week. If we succeed in bringing in 100 tourists from Kolkata per week, we believe that we will be closer to realising our dream of flying long-haul international markets using narrow-body 

jetliners.” 

As per the carrier’s plan, by August 2020, it will be flying to key Indian cities from Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) after leasing two narrow-body jets. By August 2021, the carrier plans to add two jets and begin operations from the upcoming international airport in Pokhara. The construction of the modern airport in Pokhara is expected to be completed by July 2021.

“India is a potential market for us. As per the Indian government statistics, in 2017, outbound tourism stood at 24 million,” said Basnet. “This numbers are projected to nearly double to 42 million by 2025,” he said. Last year, Nepal received more than 200,000 Indian tourists who came Nepal via air transport.  

The travel distance for an ATR 72 on the Kathmandu-Kolkata flight would be 1 hour 40 minutes. When asked whether Buddha can compete with jet planes on that sector where India’s national carrier Air India has a monopoly, Basnet said: “Obviously, we have the ‘cheapest airfare’ strategy to draw passengers.” 

“That airfare strategy is only the option to compete,” he said, adding that Buddha would be unveiling holiday packages to attract tourists from Kolkata. The airfare price, however, has not been disclosed. “We are promoting Nepal massively in Kolkata.”

“It’s a short-term calculated risk. We know we are not going to profit in the route. It’s a kind of preparation for us to set course for exotic foreign destinations,” he said. “If we succeed in the Kathmandu-Kolkata project, the sky’s the limit for us.” 

Anil Punjabi, chairman of the Travel Agents’ Federation of India, recently told the Indian media that the tourist flow from Kolkata to Nepal is currently 400 per week, way below their departures for some of the South East Asian countries. As the government has decided to publish its notification in the Nepal Gazette not to allow people to carry Indian currency of denominations larger than 100, the federation said the restriction would further weaken the numbers as people will literally have to carry a bulk of money. “Obviously, there are many issues to be sorted out in the higher level if we want to attract more Indian visitors,” said Basnet. 

“Besides, we need to launch tour packages that are compatible to what Thailand has been offering,” he said. Many countries in Southeast Asia including Thailand have been offering cheap travel packages, drawing millions of visitors to their countries annually. “To be honest, being an airline operator, we need to focus on mass tourism to boost the overall economy—from restaurants to hotels and from glossaries to airlines—all need to benefit from the tourism.”

“We want to impact the tourism market instead of focusing on the ever-increasing Nepali labour market. Our aim is to bring in tourists.”

Last year, the carrier had announced plans to connect New Delhi, India from Nepalgunj Airport with two flights daily. However, the plan is unlikely to materialise as India has not shown any interest in granting an airport slot to Buddha Air.  Sources said that the India authority has informed the carrier that they could provide slots for only two weekly flights.  

The carrier has been preparing to power itself from one-hour to three-hour or longer flights and entering the long-haul international markets like Guangzhou, Bangkok, Dhaka and most major Indian cities in the first phase.

In the second phase, the carrier plans to connect Kathmandu with Moscow, Seoul and Japan directly.

The carrier’s own study has revealed that the completion of the international airport in Pokhara will enable the lake city to host more than 2.5 million tourists annually by 2025.

Buddha began commercial flights to Paro, Bhutan with an 18-seater Beechcraft in August 2010, becoming the first foreign airline to serve Bhutan. The carrier has been assessing the Boeing 737 MAX 8 narrow-body aircraft series for future international operations. However, it has yet to decide which model is suitable for the company.

Published: 17-01-2019 07:21

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