Little evidence of in-flight transmission of Covid-19, officials sayCarriers saw an all-time monthly high in passenger numbers in March 2021 and private airlines are looking to cash in on the boom, data suggests.
There is little evidence to show in-flight transmission of the coronavirus, officials said amid public anxiety about possible infection when crowding into the confined space of an aircraft.
Airline passenger numbers too have been hitting record highs since domestic flights reopened last September, the statistics revealing unexpected trends.
Nepali domestic airlines say that occupancy has remained robust throughout the pandemic period after they resumed operations.
In March 2021, the carriers saw an all-time monthly high in passenger carriage. As per the figures released by the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, 346,471 passengers took to the air last month which is an unprecedented number.
Even in March last year, when the aviation sector suffered its worst days with the government declaring a complete lockdown from March 24, there were 213,770 domestic passengers.
The number of passengers in March 2019 reached 264,545 even as airlines engaged in an airfare war. In March 2018, they flew 236,022 travellers.
“The airlines mandated masks, boosted cleaning procedures and revised boarding protocols. So, there has been little evidence to date of onboard disease transmission,” said Raj Kumar Chhetri, spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
“The second factor attracting passengers is obviously the low cost. Air tickets are available at the price of surface transport.”
The International Air Transport Association, a trade association of the world's airlines, released its report in November last year which says in-flight Covid-19 transmission is extremely rare.
Since the start of 2020, there have been 44 confirmed or possible cases of Covid-19 associated with a flight. Over the same period, some 1.2 billion passengers have travelled. That equates to one case for every 27 million travellers, the International Air Transport Association said.
With passenger numbers rising, private carrier Buddha Air is seeking to cash in on the boom. It has purchased two ATR aircraft and plans to add one more next month. The carrier aims to become one of the largest ATR aircraft operators in South Asia in the near future.
“We want to add more planes for our ambitious regional air network connectivity—linking cities to cities,” said Birendra Bahadur Basnet, managing director of Buddha Air.
From May 1, the carrier said it would begin trial operations on the Pokhara-Simara, Pokhara-Biratnagar, Pokhara-Nepalgunj and Bharatpur-Bhairahawa routes using its two 19-seater Beechcraft aircraft.
It currently operates services on the Tumlingtar-Biratnagar, Pokhara-Bhairahawa and Bhairahawa-Bharatpur routes.
“Based on demand, we will mobilise the ATRs on these routes and conduct daily flights,” said Basnet. “As there is intense competition on the existing routes, we decided to explore alternatives,” he told a press meet on Sunday. “We will keep on continuing to search for new markets.”
The carrier, which began with one Beechcraft 1900D in October 1997, currently has 14 aircraft in its fleet—nine ATR 72, three ATR 42 and two Beechcraft.
ATR, short for Aerei da Trasporto Regionale in Italian, is a twin-engine turboprop, short-haul regional airliner developed and produced in France and Italy.
“In the next two to three years, we aim to boost our ATR fleet to 20,” Basnet told the Post. “We foresee passenger demand exploding in the coming years.”
In South Asia, India Indigo is the largest ATR aircraft operator with 25 aircraft in its fleet.
“Covid-19 was challenging for all, and for us too. But we turned it into an opportunity because aircraft prices dropped steeply. It was like a ‘buy one, get one free’ offer,” he said.
Basnet said that they hoped the upcoming two new international airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa would fuel fresh demand for connectivity. “We will require more planes to operate out of these airports.”
According to him, flying is no more a luxury. “Rising disposable incomes and overheated competition that have reduced ticket prices have been a major factor for attracting passengers,” Basnet said.
“The cost of an air ticket, which is now almost the same as the bus fare, will remain low for the next few years,” he said.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal has also proposed increasing the airport service charge to fund its ambitious regional air connectivity scheme that aims to connect unserved and under-served routes in all seven provinces with their respective capitals.
The aviation body currently charges Rs200 per domestic passenger as airport service fee except at remote airports. The authority has recommended raising the service fee that is added to the cost of a ticket to Rs300 per passenger.
The civil aviation body has recommended to the government to increase the airport fee by Rs100 per person, and use the money to provide viability gap funding for airlines to offset the high cost of operating such services, particularly in remote airfields.
According to officials, the price of an air ticket on a flight operated from the provincial capital lasting up to 30 minutes will be capped by the government to make it affordable.
They said that all locations served by an airport are linked by motorable roads too, but the drive takes 6 to 7 hours. Air services will cut that travel time to 30 minutes.