After being closed for 10 weeks, a Nepal government committee is planning to re-open domestic flights from as early as 15 June, allowing planes to carry only 40-50% of their passenger capacity.
The Coronavirus Control and Management Committee (CCMC) headed by Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel is said to be working with the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) to restart domestic flights as part of the government’s 5-stage strategy to bring economic activity back to normal by mid-August.
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The committee has drawn up guidelines for airports as well as planes, crew and passengers, and is said to be ready to give the permission to restart flights. International flights, however, will not reopen till at least mid-July, even though repatriation flights have started bringing back Nepalis from overseas.
“The government is debating about the exact date to restart flights, but we at CAAN are ready to start operating domestic flights at any time,” says CAAN spokesperson Rajkumar Chhetri.
The guidelines stipulate that only those without fever, cough and cold will be allowed into airport terminals, masks and physical distancing are mandatory, and sanitiser dispensers will be available in the terminal and on aircraft.
However, the airlines are negotiating with CAAN about the number of seats they have to leave empty, and there is disagreement between operators with small planes like Dornier-228 or Let-410s and those with ATR-72s like Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines.
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Airlines have also insisted on increasing fares to compensate for flying half-full, but the government is said to be willing to reduce the tax on aviation fuel.
Capt Rameswar Thapa of the Airline Operators Association issued a statement on 7 June demanding that the government immediately implement the provisions in the budget to scrap the Infrastructure Tax on aviation fuel, and to remove additional customs duty.
The Association wants the Nepal Oil Corporation to limit its margin to Rs10 per litre of aviation fuel, which at present costs Rs60 per litre. It says that is the only way it can maintain present fares despite carrying fewer passengers, adding that fuel makes up 40% of their operating cost.
Some airlines say they can agree to carrying only half the passengers by keeping middle seats empty because they do not expect too many passengers anyway. But say they will be forced to raise fares, if the cost of fuel is not reduced.
Nepal’s domestic airlines used to subsidise some of the tickets to remote area airports for Nepali passengers with a two-tier fare for foreign nationals. However, with tourism collapsed, even that option does not exist.
Operators claim that without the foreigner fare subsidy, they need an average occupancy of 80% per flight at current ticket prices. If they reduce occupancy to 50%, they need to increase air fare to 30-50% depending on the aircraft type.
Although some airlines have agreed to limit passenger capacity to 50% if fuel costs are lowered, Buddha Air maintains that it needs to also increase fares.
“You cannot cut passengers by half but still pay 100% cost of running an airline,” says Buddha Air spokesperson Rupesh Joshi. “No matter what the others do, we will insist on flying with full capacity. Even ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) has not insisted on reducing passenger numbers on a plane.”
Buddha Air is says it will make flying safe by distributing face-seal masks on flights. Simrik Air’s Prajwal Thapa also agrees that it is not viable to fly on half-occupancy.
CAAN’s Rajan Pokhrel says no decision has yet been taken on the matter, and point out that he understands why airlines may not be able to fly even if the government lifts the ban on flights.
Pokhrel adds: “The airlines and us will have to sit down and work out new fares if the government insists that operators can only fly with half capacity.”