KATHMANDU: Domestic passenger traffic increased by a solid 11.96 percent to 3.18 million last year, as airfares remain subdued due to intense and rising competition.

As per Tribhuvan International Airport statistics, domestic flight movement, however, dropped by 3.93 percent to 91,816 flights in 2019 as most airlines added larger aircraft into their fleets.

There were 124,255 flight movements last year, 74 percent of them domestic. This means 340 flights take off and land daily at Kathmandu’s congested airport.

Three factors are putting more passengers into airplanes, said Deo Chandra Lal Karna, spokesperson for Tribhuvan International Airport.

The first is an expanding economy and rising incomes. “The swelling middle class in Nepal, in particular, is pulling people towards air travel,” he said. The second reason is cheaper airfares.

“The domestic sector has witnessed a dramatic boom with airlines inducting larger planes like the 72-seater ATR-72. A bigger aircraft means airlines have more seats to fill, and as a result, they are competing more fiercely to cut airfares which has made flying more accessible,” said Karna.

The third reason is infrastructure. As airlines are bringing larger aircraft, it has created pressure on the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal to lengthen the runways at the country’s airports and expand other infrastructure, he said. “Today, domestic flights can operate during the night too. This has also helped to increase passenger numbers to some extent.”

Traveller movement has been fluctuating since 2009 due to the airfare structure and safety concerns, but the domestic airline industry went on a record breaking spree after the 2015 earthquake. Domestic passenger movement dropped to an eight-year low of 1.36 million in 2015 following the disaster that caused a severe economic downturn. But the very next year, passenger movement rebounded by 28.9 percent to 1.75 million.

The sun shone brightly for domestic airlines in 2017 too, and they recorded a 39.47 percent jump in domestic air passenger movement as they expanded their fleets to cater to growing travel demand. Domestic airlines flew a record 2.45 million passengers in 2017 as travellers chose to fly rather than drive over bumpy national highways which seem to be perpetually under repair.

The year 2018 was another bumper year for domestic airlines when they flew 2.84 million passengers, up 19.22 percent from the 2017 figure. The carriers received 459,169 new flyers attracted by their low-fare schemes.

The rise in air seat demand has been largely induced by low fares. Airlines have been able to maintain high load factors because of discounts. For example, flying to Janakpur today costs Rs1,800 and going there by surface transport costs Rs2,000.

Buddha Air was the clear winner in passenger movement in 2019. The carrier recorded a strong 20.06 percent growth in passenger numbers last year, flying 1.59 million passengers, the highest number for a single airline. One out of every two domestic passengers in Nepal flies on Buddha Air.

Buddha’s closest rival, Yeti Airlines, saw its passenger numbers grow 24.71 percent to 833,942 in 2019 after adding five 72-seater ATR planes to its fleet

Nepal’s largest helicopter operator, Shree Airlines, which diversified into fixed-wing services in April 2017, flew 475,069 passengers, up 6.07 percent year-on-year, to take the third spot in terms of passenger carriage last year.

Saurya Airlines, which started operations in November 2014, carried 78,387 passengers, down 26.14 percent.

Although domestic passenger movement saw robust growth in 2019, it was a painful year for Nepal Airlines which saw its passenger market share shrink to 2.36 percent despite having a large fleet. The state-owned carrier flew 74,236 travellers, a 6.23 percent drop from the previous year.

Yeti’s subsidiary Tara Air, which only operates on remote sectors, also observed a sharp decline of 36.54 percent in passenger movement. It flew 33,172 passengers last year.

Simrik Airlines and Summit Air (previously known as Goma Air) saw passenger numbers drop in 2018, with Simrik flying 28,146 passengers, down 36.78 percent; and Summit carrying 16,032 passengers, a drop of 61.98 percent.

Sita Air flew 14,481 passengers, down by 52.37 percent. According to short takeoff and landing aircraft operators, their passenger movement from Kathmandu has dropped because they are now operating their Lukla flights out of Manthali airport.