We are a small airline from a small country. But we can be very big on service

We are a small airline from a small country. But we can be very big on service

Phala Dorji is the CEO of Bhutan Airlines, the first private airline in Bhutan to operate both domestic and inter-national flights. Dorji

was formerly the Director General of the Department of Civil Aviation, Bhutan and has over 25 years of experience in aviation as a regulator. Bhutan Airlines plans to begin regular weekly flights with an Airbus A319 from Paro to Kathmandu from June 16 on every

Monday and Thursday. He spoke to Terence Lee of THT Perspectives about their ambitious plans.

Excerpts:

For a relatively new airline you have taken major strides. What is the significance of starting flights to Kathmandu?

As the first private airline in Bhutan, we started domestic operations in 2011. Then we started international flights only last October (2013). We have an international air service agreement with Nepal, India, Thailand Bangladesh and Myanmar. We see the Kathmandu-Paro route as very lucrative and for us Kathmandu is fast becoming a hub. We felt that the sooner or later we would have to fly this sector and decided on sooner because from Kathmandu the yield is good, and you have a lot of tourist especially Chinese tourist who come from here to Paro. Nepal is also popular for its holy sites forBuddhist pilgrims and Bhutanese even without an airline have been travelling by road to Nepal. So there is a lot of potential and Nepal will always remain a proffered destination for Buddhist travelers from Bhutan.

What kind of competition do you expect on this sector with Druk Air already established here?

I have always been telling our friends in Druk Air and even the Druk Air CEO, who is a personal friend that we should not look

at each other only as competitors. Bhutan is a small country and we as professionals must work together for the betterment of our country. I always joke that because of the condition of Paro Airport we cannot invite big airlines to come and operate there. But the fact is because of geographical reasons and the condition and size of the airport and the fact that we cannot offer night landing facility and other constraints and difficulties it is a challenge for other airlines.

It is true that Druk Air has been in this business for the last 30 years. We have just started international operations since the last eight months and I believe we did very well during this period. Running an airline is not an easy business. It is highly capital intensive, highly technical and highly complex. Yet, we did well as a private airline because we have the advantage to take immediate decisions based on the situation.

I have set a target for Bhutan Airlines, that by 2017 we should be the friendliest airline in the region with the best service, even if we are the smallest. We plan to get another aircraft by July and we hope that if things go well and there is a good market we can expand to three aircraft. We have a chairman who has a vision for the future and the company is financially sound as this group owns over 40 odd companies that include breweries, banking and even telecom in Bhutan.

We have announced service to Kathmandu and Druk Air is already doing this. We will keep the fares almost the same but where we will compete will be on service. We will offer such service that people will prefer to fly with us.

What is the Bhutan outbound market like? What kind of challenges and restrictions are there to inbound tourism?

Bhutanese outbound is not really there. The few places that Bhutanese business and leisure travelers go to are Nepal, India and Thailand. It is basically business related travel to India or pilgrimage to Thailand and of course Nepal.

We will be looking at tourist to Bhutan as the tourism industry has grown phenomenally in Bhutan in the last 10 years. Yes, earlier there used to be a restriction on the number of tourist who could come to Bhutan. But now things have changed and it is no more restricted.

The tourism industry has opened up and we can now manage many thousands.

Bhutan has started developing tourism infrastructure like hotels et cetera and we have started focusing on tourism and bringing in more tourists to Bhutan. The government has removed such barriers and is opening up tourism. The fact that a private airline like ours is invited to invest in millions shows this commitment and not to encourage tourist to visit Bhutan would be meaningless.

What are your future plans for Kathmandu?

We would like to operate flights via Kathmandu. Right now, we are looking at the Fifth Freedom possibilities. We have requested the government of Nepal for Fifth Freedom to operate flights via Kathmandu onward to Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore and other places. However, the government of Nepal has this on hold at the moment, not just for us but for all airlines. If this is permitted we would like to operate these flights and our aircraft is also suitable for such medium haul flights.

As CEO what is your vision for Bhutan Airlines?

As a CEO I have to tell you that we are a small airline from a small country. But we can be very big on service. This is what I tell my chairman and the board. This is something I learnt from Richard Branson. As the DG Civil Aviation and working for the government of Bhutan for the last 25 years, I had the opportunity to meet Branson at various international aviation programmes. He always insisted on service with a smile. He said he had tried a number of businesses and some were successful and some were not. But he

said focus on service and making people happy and you cannot go wrong. He talked about having great service in the cabin and

air attendants who always smile.

I believe at the end of the day when people are paying to travel by air they will want good service in the sky. This will be our focus and our strength.

Nepalis are travelling these days. Will you be promoting tourism to Bhutan and how?

It is interesting that you mention it. Yes, we will be flying passengers from Paro to Kathmandu and back. That is the service we

provide as an airline but it is not just about transport, otherwise we would be like a bus service. We have just started out but we have the best team in Bhutan and our commercial team is working on developing packages that will include hotel, travel arrangements, rebates, discounts et cetera for people visiting Bhutan. This is where we can make a difference.Himalayan Times

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