In August, India had proposed a ‘travel bubble’ with Nepal as it has with 20 other countries, including Bangladesh and Bhutan. The arrangement has allowed Bhutan’s Druk Air, for example to restart flights Paro-New Delhi.
However, there was no response from the Nepal government to the proposal. Observers blamed this on strained relations between the two countries, as well as India’s delay in granting more air routes in addition to the existing two entry points for flights descending into Kathmandu through Indian air space.
The Ministry of Tourism has also been pushing for reopening India flights because the state-owned carrier Nepal Airlines is in deep financial crisis due to under-utilisation of its Airbus fleet. There used to be up to 60 flights a week between Indian cities and Kathmandu, of which Nepal Airlines flew weekly 18. The losses for the airline have been particularly heavy because of the inability to fly the money-spinning Kathmandu-Delhi route.
Flights to and from Kathmandu airport were stopped on 24 March when Nepal went into complete lockdown. Although some repatriation charter flights were allowed, Nepal remained cut off from India. Even when the ban on regular flights was partially lifted on 1 October, Indian and Nepali airlines were not allowed to operate to and from Indian cities to Kathmandu.
Despite the optimism, some say that flights are not likely until 1 January, when India is set to allow all regular international flights to its cities. At present only repatriation flights and some ‘air bubble’ regular flights are allowed on international routes from Indian cities.
The Nepal government allowed foreigners, but only trekkers and mountaineers, to visit Nepal from 17 October, but the resurgence of Covid-19 in Nepal, India and Europe has meant that there are not so many foreign passengers. Airlines that have resumed flights to Tokyo, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, the Gulf cities and Istanbul have done so with reduced frequency, and mostly carry Nepali families or migrant workers.
There has been a trickle of trekkers coming to Nepal, but they have to spend a week in quarantine in Kathmandu and need a PCR negative test before they can head off to the mountains. However, the Ministry of Tourism is said to be pressing the government to open Nepal to all foreigners in time for the Christmas New Year holidays.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, Kathmandu airport used to handle an average of 80 international flights a day, which has come down to only about 20 now. Sixteen international carriers and Nepal Airlines currently operate flights to and from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Doha, Kuwait, Muscat, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Istanbul, Narita, Seoul and Bangkok.
“The next step is for CAAN to approach the Indian civil aviation authorities to request for slots, and then coordinate the timetables, we do not yet know how many flights per day there will be,” explained CAAN spokesperson Rajkumar Chhetri.
So far India’s Indigo and Nepal’s private carrier Shree Airlines have been flying occasional charter and cargo flights between Kathmandu and Kolkata and Delhi.
Meanwhile, domestic flights in Nepal are back to 75% of pre-Covid levels. Nepal’s domestic carriers Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air have also restarted their Mt Everest sightseeing flights after nine months. Both airlines have slashed fares for Nepali passengers on the Everest flights, and have offered a buy-one-fly-two scheme under which a passenger can take a companion in the aisle seat.
Nepalis have to pay Rs8,900 for a roundtrip Everest flight, and get another ticket for free. Yeti is offering the same for Rs8,998 for the one-hour flight that takes off and landed in Kathmandu, and takes passengers to within 20km of Mt Everest. Both airlines are conducting the flights weekly on Saturday mornings, and will increase frequency as per demand.
Mountain sightseeing flights used to the main cash cow for Nepal’s domestic airlines which could charge foreign tourists up to $155 for the trips. Now, foreigners will also get a discount and pay Rs13,499 (USD113) for the flights, and like Nepalis get to take another passenger for free.
In pre-pandemic days, Nepal’s airlines used to make up to 30 sightseeing flights on days with good weather over the mountains.
“The pandemic has hit our revenue base, and the loss of the dollar fare on mountain flights has made it worse, we hope that by resuming the flights even partially will revive interest on one of the most spectacular flights in the world,” said Buddha Air’s Rupesh Joshi.
Domestic airlines which resumed operations on 20 September are flying trunk routes at up to 50% discount for Nepali passengers following safety protocols.