Nepal’s civil aviation body on Sunday permitted the national flag carriers of Nepal and India to increase the number of weekly flights on the Kathmandu-Delhi route under the air bubble arrangement from two at present to six.
With an increase in demand for tickets as there has been an exponential rise in the number of outbound passengers from Kathmandu, mostly travelling for medical treatment, passengers have been scrambling to get tickets on the route, the busiest and most lucrative one for airlines.
Raj Kumar Chettri, spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, told the Post that Nepal Airlines and Air India have been permitted to operate three flights a week each and will be effective from Monday.
While, as per the approved schedule, Air India will operate flights on the sector on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays Nepal Airlines, which operates services every Wednesday, is yet to get the slot approval from India's civil aviation regulator.
Currently, the services remain capped due to an air bubble arrangement between Nepal and India that allows one weekly flight in either direction.
In December last year, Nepal and India entered into an air bubble agreement, a dedicated flight service between the two countries following strict health and safety protocols set by the authorities of the respective countries.
“Both carriers—Nepal Airlines and Air India—applied to raise their frequencies on Sunday after the government decided to increase the frequencies in the sector. We have approved their operating permits accordingly,” said Chettri.
However, according to Chettri, under the air bubble arrangement, other airlines in India are still restricted to operate on the Kathmandu-New Delhi route. India’s low-cost carrier IndiGo and startup carrier Vistara have also applied to operate in Nepal.
Demand for tickets on the Kathmandu-Delhi route has been going off the charts, and airfares have been soaring due to the limited frequencies.
Travel agencies have reported that the price of a seat on a flight to Delhi has reached Rs50,000, almost six times the normal cost because flights between the two neighbours have not been increased despite a massive surge in travel demand.
Flight frequencies on other international sectors have returned to near normal levels.
On July 5, a Cabinet meeting had allowed the resumption of passenger flights on international sectors based on the country’s needs and travel demand.
The government moved to resume flights following complaints about expensive air tickets in the international sector after a limited number of flights were permitted to some key destinations.
But services to Delhi, the busiest and most lucrative route out of Kathmandu, remain capped due to an air bubble arrangement between Nepal and India that allows one weekly flight in either direction.
Dim Prasad Poudel, managing director of Nepal Airlines, said they would immediately apply for the slot at the Delhi airport once they received the approval letter from the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
Shyam Raj Thapaliya, managing director of Osho World Nepal, one of the leading travel agencies in Nepal, said as most of the embassies based in Kathmandu have started issuing visas from New Delhi, travellers have to go to the Indian capital to get their entry permits, resulting in a travel rush.
“Many Nepalis are also travelling to Delhi for medical treatment,” he said.
According to Osho Travel, seats on Air India are sold out for July 23. The cheapest ticket on the next flight on July 30 costs Rs48,500.
Air India operates the New Delhi-Kathmandu service every Friday. The normal charge for the 1 hour 15 minute hop is Rs9,000.
Nepal’s flag carrier Nepal Airlines, which currently makes reciprocal flights to Delhi, operates services every Wednesday. Flights are sold out for July 21 and July 28 too.
The Nepal Airlines fare on the Kathmandu-Delhi sector is capped at Rs30,000.
An unnamed official of the airline said they had applied for a daily flight on the Kathmandu-Delhi sector in mid-March, when the second wave started in India.
With coronavirus cases surging in neighbouring India, Nepal was caught off guard. On April 29, the government announced a second lockdown. It restricted domestic flights from midnight of May 3 and international flights from midnight of May 6 as the second wave of Covid-19 gripped the country.
While all international scheduled flights connecting Kathmandu have been ordered to halt, the government decided to continue with the two flights a week on the Kathmandu-Delhi sector.
Passengers travelling between the two countries have to follow strict travel protocols.
“The increased flights will bring relief to passengers who are forced to pay hefty airfare due to limited flights,” said Chettri, of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.