Vijay Shrestha is the Vice President of Administration at Himalaya Airlines with more than two decades of lead management experience in the airline industry in Nepal.
Dibesh Dangol of B360 interviewed Shrestha to get insight about Himalaya Airlines’ five year journey, induction of Airbus A319 aircraft, China connectivity, and his thoughts on civil aviation of Nepal.
Himalaya Airlines has been in the Nepali airline industry for five years now. Can you share this journey with us?
Himalaya Airlines was founded in 2014 with a plan to launch debut flights in mid-2015. We had placed an order for delivery of an aircraft Airbus A320 which was supposed to be delivered to us before June 2015 but couldn’t happen because of the April 2015 earthquake. We had to reschedule our business plan and we postponed the delivery of the aircraft and launching of flights for the following year. In March 2016, we inducted the aircraft after which we started operating flights. Within a few days of induction of the first aircraft, Himalaya Airlines got an opportunity to serve and operate as a state flight for Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s inaugural visit to China on March 20. On May 31, 2016, we started operating flights to Doha from Kathmandu. We did operate flights from Kathmandu to Colombo. We have been adding new flights, routes and destinations. We have operated to Dubai, Malaysia, Colombo and Myanmar in the past.
This year, we have added more routes by initiating regular flights to Abu Dhabi and Dhaka. This is the history of scheduled flight operations of Himalaya Airlines. Besides this, next month we are inducting a brand new Airbus A319 to operate flights to China. Within 2019, we plan to operate flights to four destinations in China: Beijing, Nanchang, Changsha and Guiyang.
What have you learnt about the industry in these five years?
In these five years we got to know the market, customer needs and environmental issues better. We had opportunities to venture out to different routes and points. We have two aspects of launching flights from commercial points of view – inbound and outbound. We want to go to places where there is a high density of traffic and different customer types. Based on our and overall Nepali aviation industry’s experience, there is concentration on inbound and outbound traffic of leisure and labour travellers. In China, in terms of both inbound and outbound, leisure traffic is more followed by business travellers; however, there are certain routes like Middle East countries where there is a high concentration of labour traffic followed by leisure and business traffic. There are certain routes where there is a mix of different types of flight travellers. So, we are getting to know more about these matters and these are our focus points to go forward.
Himalaya Airlines will be conducting three weekly direct flights to Beijing from September. What will it mean for your company?
Nepal has signed bilateral air service agreements with various countries. Through such agreements, airlines companies of two countries get entitlements of flight frequencies. Under the newly renewed Nepal and China bilateral air service agreement, Chinese airlines companies can operate up to 77 flights per week to Kathmandu from Chinese airports. From 2020, Chinese airlines companies can operate 98 flights a week from Chinese to Nepali airports; 77 flights to Tribhuvan International Airport and the remaining 21 flights to be distributed between the upcoming Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara International Airport.
As for Nepal, under the renewed agreement, the Chinese government has allowed Nepali airline companies to operate to five new points in China in 2019 and three additional points in 2020. So from the beginning of 2020, Nepali airlines companies can fly to 15 Chinese airports. Under the same agreement, Himalaya is planning to go to three new points – Changsha, Nanchang and Guiyang, along with Beijing.
This means Nepali airline companies will have greater access to the China market. We have to look at this scenario beyond just aviation and tourism perspective. Yes, we’ll be able to bring more arrivals from China via tourism, but we’ll also be laying foundation for better trade, industrial and commercial relationship between the two countries. There are tons of benefits we can have from a healthy aviation relationship between these two countries. If you look from tourism perspective at Chinese outbound trip statistics, last year about 130 million Chinese travellers were recorded to have gone out from China for tourism purposes. That’s the potential China has for developing tourism of any country. Nepal being one of the nearest neighbours of China and because of the mutual relationship between the two countries through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), if Nepal can tap in a small portion of out-bound Chinese tourists, it can have a substantial effect on the development of tourism in Nepal.
What made the deal possible?
We applied to operate flights to Beijing a few years back but Beijing Capital International Airport was too busy and flight slots weren’t available to any airlines including Nepali airlines. We got assurance from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) that Himalaya Airlines will be provided flight operation slots when Daxing International Airport becomes operational. We obtained the flight slots by fulfilling standard business requirements of CAAC.
What are the reasons behind Himalaya Airlines’ focus on China connectivity?
Himalaya Airlines wants to target airports, cities and countries where there is a high density of passenger traffic. Because of the Chinese economy and outbound statistics, China connectivity has been the target of many countries and airlines companies. Also because China is one of the closest neighbours of Nepal and that Nepal has signed BRI with China, Himalaya Airlines wants to operate and open new avenues from corporate and tourism aspects for both countries. We view that our China operations will have positive results for us.
What is your perception of the EU blacklisting Nepali airlines?
EU listed Nepali carriers due to safety concerns. Himalaya Airlines has gone through different international audits for flight safety and operation. The civil aviation authorities of various countries have sent auditors to Himalaya Airlines for audits and all of them were impressed with our safety level, flight operations, aircraft maintenance and organisational management. Development and safety are the continuous processes and we want to keep improving. As for safety listing of EU, we have to work better now and tomorrow so that Nepali airlines can be lifted from the list and there won’t be such safety listing on Nepali aviation in the future.
How do you evaluate civil aviation in Nepal?
If you analyse the Nepali aviation scenario as a whole over the last several years, aviation is making huge progress. The number of flights, both domestic and international, has been increasing significantly every year along with the number of flight passengers. The key sets of parameters like the movement of traffic, flights and passengers, in Nepali aviation are developing rapidly.
In the next few years, Nepal will have two more international airports. So, the total capacities of airports, international and domestic, will grow at a significant scale. From air safety side, until a few years ago Nepali aviation was listed in Significant Safety Concerns (SSCs) list of International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) which was lifted in July 2017. Currently, all the stakeholders involved in this industry – Government of Nepal, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, private and government airlines companies – are working hand-in-hand to elevate the level of flight safety and Nepali aviation as a whole. So, while analysing these civil aviation variables, the result clearly shows civil aviation in Nepal is growing.
How important is the development of airline companies for the development of the country?
Aviation is one of the major economy stimulators. The development of aviation leads to economic success and many developed countries can be taken as examples for economic prosperity because of successful aviation. One of the focused economy sectors in Nepal is tourism and the development of tourism is directly related to the aviation situation of the country. The same applies for the development of trade and commerce; both domestically and internationally. If you look at the development of a country from an economic point of view, aviation is vital for the seamless connection of Nepal with other countries.
Can you give us an update on the acquisition of an Airbus A319 narrow-body jet that Himalaya Airlines is planning to operate?
We are planning to induct a brand new Airbus A319 by October. The aircraft can perform very well in high altitudes. With this aircraft, we are planning to operate flights in Lhasa and Beijing directly through trans-Himalaya routes.