Starting 12 May, passengers who have suffered inflated ticket prices and shoddy service from the state-run airlines of India and Nepal will have more choice with India's private Air Sahara plans for a new daily New Delhi-Kathmandu conection. Its rival, Jet Airways, is expected to launch its own service soon after.
An Indian cabinet decision in January opened the skies for India's private operators to fly to international destinations and Jet and Sahara have already started operations to Sri Lanka. Nepal is next.
The Air Service Agreement between Nepal and India allows each side to operate 6,000 airseats between the two countries weekly. So far, Royal Nepal and Indian Airlines use only 60 percent of that volume and trade analysts say that at the rate traffic is growing there is a market for double that number if service is improved and competition brings prices down.
Air Sahara's local agent Joy Dewan of Zenith Travels told us: "The groundwork for the flight-operation is in the final stages." The airline will use its brand new Boeing 737-800 between Kathmandu and Delhi. Meanwhile, Jet Airways is shopping for a GSA in Kathmandu, and has reportedly settled for the Lufthansa agents. Sahara's crew is currently undergoing flight simulator practice for landings and takeoffs from Kathmandu airport.
New Delhi is regarded as a bottleneck for Nepal's tourism, and if the Kathmandu-Delhi shuttle can be improved, it will boost travel. Inbound air traffic to Nepal increased by 60 percent in March 2004 compared to the same period in 2003, and half the increase was from India. This increase could have been much greater if Royal Nepal had not dropped its morning flights to New Delhi.
Besides the benefit of more tourists, the government is also happy about increased revenue from air traffic. "We will make money from landing and parking charges, as well as passenger service," says Nagendra Prasad Ghimire, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. While it is understandable for the government to be interested in squeezing carriers, analysts say it should be working harder to shorten the Kathmandu-New Delhi air route by overflying Nepalganj. This would reduce airtime from the current Lucknow route by up to 14 minutes, and allow massive savings in fuel for the airlines.
Bhola Thapa of President Travels says the arrival of private Indian airlines will force Indian Airlines to also upgrade services. "Since Royal Nepal is more or less out of the picture, it is Indian Airlines that will have to compete to survive on this route," Thapa said.
The additional flights will augment a new bi-weekly link between Kathmandu and Chengdu by Air China. China Eastern is interested in a direct Kathmandu-Beijing flight and Philippine Airlines is negotiating a Manila stopover for flights to the US from Kathmandu. The new year also began on a favourable note with PIA resuming its Islamabad flights after a two year Indian ban on overflights. However, passenger growth on a sector that has the capacity of 25,000 seats a year is reported to be sluggish.
In more good news, existing international operators have applied for increases in frequency and seat capacity to meet the higher demand. Thai Airways plans to double its single daily flight between Kathmandu and Bangkok by December. The airline has been suffering load penalty on its 777 takeoffs from because higher temperatures do not allow fully-loaded takeoffs from Kathmandu short runway. Last year, Thai carried 80,000 passengers into Nepal, a whopping 33 percent increase from 2002.
The Dutch charter airline Martinair will double its flights to twice weekly between Amsterdam and Kathmandu later this year. The KLM subsidiary is now operating a 274-seater Boeing 767 and plans to carry both cargo and passengers to Amsterdam with a stopover in Sharjah.
Meanwhile, Qatar Airways, the fastest-growing airline flying into Kathmandu, operates 15 flights a week, 11 between Kathmandu and Doha and four between Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu. With 85 percent occupancy rate in both its A300-600 and A320 aircraft, Qatar plans to add three more flights to Doha this year.
757 lease hits snag
Royal Nepal Airlines' plans to lease a 757 while one of its two jets is grounded for regular maintenance has hit a snag, threatening to throw the flag carrier's international schedules into disarray during the peak tourist season.
In preparation for one of the airline's two 757s being out of action for two months starting this week, the management had invited tender bids to lease an additional jet in March. Seven suppliers applied, but none of them were found eligible.
Left with only one 757 to handle all its routes to Delhi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Hong Kong, Dubai, Bangalore and Mumbai the airline is facing another one of its legendary disruptions.
"We have rescheduled passengers for one week," Managing Director MP Khanal told us. "After that we will see what we can do." After the applications were rejected, the state-run airline even began direct negotiations with suppliers and one company was shortlisted. But that deal fell through on the lease price.
Sources told us Royal Nepal is now in negotiation with a Chinese carrier to lease a 757 for two months, but the deal will take 10 days to be finalised.
Given past scandals, airline officials are wary of lease deals and want everything to be above board. They can't take short-cuts even if it has become seriously urgent to expedite a lease because they know the CIAA is watching. The anti-corruption watchdog wants Royal Nepal to go for global tendering and follow all official procedures for aircraft lease.