Post-Covid rebound for Nepal’s airlines

Nepal’s domestic aviation has seen a rebound in the past year despite a lingering pandemic and an economic crisis driven by high fuel costs.

Even as international flights connecting Kathmandu, especially to and from East Asia, have struggled to reach pre-Covid levels, Nepal’s domestic airlines have seen a 15% growth in traffic.

Nearly 4 million passengers flew on domestic routes in fiscal year 2021-22, as Nepal’s limited airport infrastructure struggled to cope.

To reduce congestion in the air and on ground at Kathmandu airport, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) ordered airlines to park some of their planes at outstation airports overnight and extended airport opening times to 18 hours a day.

Read also: Now, everyone can fly, Birendra B Basnet

The surge in domestic airline passengers has been due to pent-up demand caused by the pandemic, the poor condition of Nepal’s highways which makes bus travel long and hazardous, and greater mobility and purchasing power of middle-class Nepalis.

There has also been an increase in Indian pilgrims and tourists travelling from border cities in the Tarai to Pokhara and Kathmandu, airlines say.

Buddha Air is Nepal’s largest airline by far, with 56% market share. It has seen the most dramatic rise in load factor, and added four more ATR-72-500s to its fleet even during the pandemic.

Buddha now has 16 aircraft: 11 ATR-72 500, three ATR-42 320 and two Beechcraft 1900D, and two more ATR-72s are expected to arrive later this year. The flights operate on 43 domestic routes as well as pilgrim charter flights between Varanasi and Kathmandu.

Buddha Air has also started provincial flights that bypass Kathmandu. Pokhara is linked to Simara, Bhairawa, Bharatpur, Nepalganj, Dhangadi, Biratnagar and Bhadrapur. In future, it plans Biratnagar-Nepalganj and Bhairawa-Biratnagar flights.

Buddha Air has carried 18 million passengers since it was established in 1997.  It is the only airline with a fully equipped maintenance hangar, and besides its own aircraft, does checks on Drug Air of Bhutan and NOVO Air of Bangladesh.

The second biggest airline is Yeti-Tara with 25% market share and operates the most domestic air routes with six ATR-72 500s as well as three DHC6- 300 Twin Otters to remote area airfields.

Yeti has also been a pioneer in reducing and offsetting its carbon foot-print and has been recognised by the UNFCC as Nepal’s first carbon-neutral airline.

Read also: Airlines hit hardest by Nepal’s fuel hike, Nepali Times

With state-owned Nepal Airlines Corporation having withdrawn most of its domestic operations due to mismanagement, the gap has been filled by private domestic airlines. Nepal Airlines’ six Chinese-made Y-12 and MA60s have been grounded for the last two years, and it only has two airworthy Twin Otters that are more than 35 years old that fly to a handful of STOL airfields.

The third domestic airline is Shree with 15% market share. Originally a helicopter operator, the airline now has a fleet of seven Bombardier aircraft, with 2 CRJ-200ER, 2 CRJ-700 and three Dash 8 Q400. Besides Pokhara, all its other destinations from Kathmandu are Tarai cities.

Among the other smaller airlines, Guna operates two Beechcraft 1900s and two Jetstream 41 bought from Yeti. Saurya Airlines operates one CRJ200. Remote area operator Sita Air is negotiating to expand its fleet of four Dornier Do228 with four ATR-72500s.

Read more: Nepal airlines may merge to survive, Raju Baskota

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