Rinzin Wangchuk

The winter holidays have come to an end and intake in universities in Australia ending in March means bad news and business for the airlines.

Passengers travelling out for a vacation to Bangkok and those going to Australia have kept the business alive, but the traffic is expected to decline as schools reopen in the country and admission for the spring semester closes in March.

Spring is the tourist season in Bhutan, but going by those in the airline business, there are not many reservations, indicating a slow business. The most popular tourist attraction festival in Bhutan, Paro Tshechu, is nearing. In the past, it is around this time that both  Bhutan Airlines and Drukair experienced one of the busiest flight schedules.

However, going by the number of seats booked by the tourists there will be a smaller number of international tourist arrivals this spring season. “We have less than 20 percent of our seats booked during this festival period,” Chief Executive Officer of Bhutan Airlines, Pema Nadik said. “Pre-pandemic period, our scheduled flights would have been fully sold out by now and we would be planning on additional flights to meet the demand.”

As expected, tour operators attributed the drop of tourist arrivals to the change in tourism policy and levying sustainable development fee (SDF) of US Dollar 200 per international tourist and Nu 1,200 for regional tourist. The other factors, according to both locals and outsiders, could be charging higher airfares. For instance, the return flight to Delhi was increased from Nu 22,000 to Nu more than 25,000 recently. The fare increase is double for international visitors.

One of the officials in the aviation sector said that the operators do not have much say in determining the airfare since it is mostly fixed by the government.

Bhutan Airlines discontinued the Kathmandu sector and temporarily suspended Delhi flight schedules due to poor load (passengers). “We started off with three flights to Delhi and Kathmandu (post Covid-19) but unfortunately had to be suspended due to extremely poor load,” Pema Nadik said. The airline also reduced its daily flight to/from Bangkok to four flights a week.

Sharing his concern over the sustainability of the business, Pema Nadik said that if the trend continued, they will be in no better position than when they were during the pandemic period. “It will be difficult to make a comment at the moment but it is remarkable that we are still operating despite the pandemic,” he said. “If the trend continues, it will definitely put a strain on our continued sustainability as a private airline.”

Bhutan Airlines has also reduced its flight schedules by almost 50 percent as compared to pre-Covid-19.

The airlines claimed a loss of Nu 1.42 billion over the last three years of the pandemic.  The company projected loss from January to March this year is about Nu 150 million, according to Pema Nadik.

Despite the bleak business, Bhutan Airlines is optimistic that things will improve after March with arrivals from India as it’s the start of the summer holidays there.

Bhutan Airlines, operated by Tashi Air Pvt. Ltd is Bhutan’s first private airline and has offered services with two airbuses since October 2013.

Druk Air, meanwhile, has declined to comment on Kuensel queries.