Nepali Times
Sky-high with Buddha

Starting this issue, Nepali Times selects a Company of the Month on the basis of criteria such as making progress towards management excellence, social accountability, vision and environmental consciousness.


PLANE SPEAKING: Buddha Air's managing director, Birendra Basnet, stepping out of one his airline's fleet of Raytheon Beechcraft 1900Ds at Kathmandu airport on Wednesday.

Buddha Air's Birendra Basnet still remembers the day well. It was November 1997 and his first aircraft was arriving on a ferry flight from Bombay. As he drove his car down the airport road on the straight stretch from New Baneswor, he saw a plane about to touch down. The tail stabiliser lights illuminated the blue-and-beige Buddha Air logo.

"It was the proudest moment in my life," Basnet recalls. "I felt a great sense of accomplishment."

Today, ten years later, that sense of accomplishment is even greater for this Budanilkantha School graduate who forayed from being a middle class farmer in Morang to becoming the owner of Nepal's most trusted airline. Since 1997, Buddha Air's fleet has expanded to seven aircraft, its route map now spans the country from east to west.

Asked to rank the main factors that made Buddha excel, Basnet counts them off on his fingers: "Lots of luck, lots of hard work, being realistic, having a good business plan and taking care of our staff."

The airline selected the twin-engined turboprop Raytheon Beechcraft 1900C, but realised only later just how lucky it was with the choice. The 19-seater was the right aircraft at the right time with its performance, capacity, and Nepal's passenger volumes.

At $5 million apiece, the capital investment was steep, but the airline saved on maintenance costs and reaped the benefit of being the first private domestic airline in Nepal to invest in new equipment.

The first few years were difficult. New private airlines had sprung up, Necon had just brought in used ATR42s and Cosmic was flying SAAB340s. The war intensified and tourism went into free fall. "Those were the hardest years," Basnet recalls, "and that is when we realised our biggest asset was our staff. It was their dedication and hard work to help management overcome the crisis that saved us."

The airline's main mantra, says Basnet, is never to compromise on two things: staff morale and maintenance. Indeed, Buddha has the lowest crew turnover of any airline in Nepal at a time when companies are hemorrhaging pilots and staff to foreign airlines.

As other airlines folded due to poor management or low yield, by 2002 Buddha was soaring again. It inducted two more Beechcrafts and was paying creditors regularly giving the airline a lot of credibility. Today, it fully owns three of its 1900Cs.

"You need proper and transparent book-keeping. You have to strive for reliability and integrity," says Basnet. "In the airline business, if you take shortcuts, you are gone. You have to be in it for the long-haul."

Basnet reads a lot, and he listens to the experts: engineers, accounts people, admin staff, IT specialists. Basnet's office has glass panels on all walls so the staff sees him and he sees the staff. His table is paperless. On a computer, he constantly monitors fleet deployment, performance, occupancy, yield.

But things don't always go according to plan. Buddha Air dabbled with trying to help a new airline startup in India's northeast with equipment and operations, but had to back out when the venture took too long to take off.

"We've now prepared a five-year strategy and we are much more focussed about what we want to do," says Basnet. Buddha will concentrate on the domestic market which isn't yet saturated, it is looking at bigger turboprops, an expanded fleet and after that to start connecting Nepali cities to northern India and South Asia.

"We aren't going to expand, or add jets just for the sake of it, we will build on our strengths," says Basnet. "But we have to keep growing, if we don't we'll stagnate."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)