Cosmic Air's Fokker 100s and their unbeatable prices have transformed air travel on trunk routes from Kathmandu to Biratnagar, Bhairawa and Nepalganj.
More established domestic airlines like Buddha and Yeti have had to think fast to respond. Fares have come tumbling down, frequency of flights have gone up, service has improved somewhat and airlines are focussing on their unique selling points. Buddha and Yeti have forged an alliance and are now offering early morning or late night slots to counter competition from Cosmic.
They are hush-hush about it but some airlines are also planning point-to-point flights within Nepal that don't touch Kathmandu. Biratnagar-Nepalganj, Pokhara-Bhairawa and even Bhadrapur-Mahendranagar are seen as viable options because
of the hassles of highway travel these days.
At the moment, passengers have to fly through Kathmandu and often spend the night here if they want to travel from, say, Biratnagar to Pokhara.
Prem Nath Thakur at the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) says permission for such routes would be readily given. "We are waiting for the airlines to come up with proposals, it would inject new business and ease the cut-throat competition on the Kathmandu routes," he adds.
This would also ease the traffic congestion in Kathmandu. With Cosmic ready to bring in its fourth Fokker 100, there is going to be a parking problem here. "We've been expanding like crazy and I don't know where we are going park our planes anymore," admits Cosmic's Lawrence Liew.
"Competition is getting really stiff, it's become like a fish market," says RP Bhandari of Gorkha Airlines, "and fares are being slashed at a time of high fuel prices and low tourist volume. It's great for consumers but not so good for airlines." Gorkha has therefore decided to diversify to remote airports like Tumlingtar and Rumjatar where there is less competition.
But officials are finding it difficult to prod other carriers flying trunk or tourist routes to also fly to remote strips. "Few airlines really fly to unprofitable remote areas," says Mery Patrabansh, manager of Flight Schedule and Permission Section at CAAN.
We asked Buddha Air if they are hurting from the competition. "The drop in occupancy is expected in the off season," said Rupesh Joshi of Buddha Air, "but we are concentrating on providing high quality services at reasonable fares." At Yeti Airlines, the fall in tourism has prompted focus on Nepali passengers. Says Bijay Shrestha of Yeti, "We really want to encourage Nepali travellers to fly and it's working-many are now hooked on the comfort and speed of flying."
Abha Eli Phoboo