As AirAsia starts its first direct flight to Kuala Lumpur from Bhubaneswar, MCL explores how the initiative will benefit the state and its people in the days to come.It has been more than three years since Biju Patnaik Airport was accorded international status. During this period, several international flights operated out of Bhubaneswar to international destinations via other airports of the country but not a single one plied directly. Finally, on April 26, the first international flight took off from Bhubaneswar directly to Kuala Lumpur.
Considered as one of world’s low-cost airlines, Malaysia based AirAsia signed a pact with the state government on February 17 for running direct international flights from Bhubaneswar to Kuala Lumpur. The airline is now operating four days a week including Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, making it AirAsia Group’s 14th route into India. Bookings for the flights were available from February 23 to March 5 for the travel period from April 26 until October 27.
On the D-day, Chief Executive Officer of AirAsia Berhad, Aireen Omar was overwhelmed with joy as he informed the media, “With Bhubaneswar now added to our extensive network, AirAsia is unlocking the potential of international air travel from Kuala Lumpur to eastern India and its surrounding areas. We are thrilled to be serving Bhubaneswar direct, a huge market that no other airline is serving directly from Malaysia. Now, everyone from across the region can connect to Bhubaneswar with AirAsia via Kuala Lumpur. At the same time, the people of Odisha can use Bhubaneswar as a gateway to our extensive route network to Asean and beyond, where they will have access to over 120 destinations across our extensive route network.”
On the night of April 26, flight AK31, which carried with it 95 passengers, was scheduled to fly from Kuala Lumpur at 10.10 pm and arrive at Biju Patnaik International Airport (BPIA) at 11.25 pm but it reached around 45 minutes late at 12.25 am. The airplane was welcomed with a ceremonious ‘water salute’ where two firefighting rigs sprayed arcs of water. The first international flight to fly directly from Bhubaneswar was AK 30. It was scheduled to take off from Bhubaneswar at 11.55pm and reach Kuala Lumpur at 6.20am, but as AK 31 was considerably late, the flight also flew late at 12.55 am.
One of the passengers of the first flight, Manas Kumar Nandi told MCL, “I and two of my friends went to Malaysia for the first time in the first international flight to Kuala Lumpur. The travel fare for each of us was just Rs. 7200. I personally enjoyed the trip a lot. Our tickets included food facility. Everything inside the plane was nice. The air hostesses were always at our service. It was a nice experience.”
Meanwhile, the state government is providing reasonable Viability Gap Funding (VGF) in the form of subsidy grant to woo the international air carrier. To this, Ramesh Chandra Majhi, Minister of Commerce and Transport, said, “This is a great step by the state government, which can bring a drastic change in tourism as well as trade and commerce scenario of the state. Malaysian companies can avail the opportunity to explore their trade in Odisha and vice versa, thus promoting industrialisation. Electronics and gold and silver jewellery business can also be a profitable venture.”
In fact, on the night the direct flight took off, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik also remembered the historical relationship between Kalinga, the then name of Odisha with the Southeast Asian countries. In his twitter handle, he had tweeted, “Direct flight from Bhubaneswar to Kuala Lumpur by @airasiain places #Odisha as gateway to East; will revive ancient ties, open new horizons.”
Dr. Nitin B Jawale, Director and Additional Secretary of Odisha Tourism Department, explained how this initiative would help tourism in Odisha to grow. He had said, “One of the most important aspects in tourism is connectivity. In fact, low footfall of tourists in our state, which is endowed with scenic beauties, beaches, wildlife, culture, heritage and ethnicity, was being attributed to poor connectivity and lack of international connectivity. With AirAsia being the first international airline to operate directly from the capital, the gap that was there has been minimised to a great extent.”
“It is a conscious effort from the state government and it has been bearing the Viability Gap Funding for this international connectivity. We have to work very hard to put this thing into place and establish direct connectivity from Odisha to abroad. Through Kuala Lumpur, Odisha is now directly connected to as many as 20 international destinations. A big challenge for us is to get tourists from the foreign soil to Odisha and this will only be possible when we will market us in the catchment area of Bhubaneswar and also abroad,” he was quoted as saying.
Talking to MCL, he further said, “We have done a sound market exercise regarding how influential this AirAsia initiative was and we found that people in Malaysia are now searching more about our state in the internet. The percentage increment in searching for Odisha has gone up by 150%! But it isn’t the case in Thailand, perhaps due to lack of direct connectivity.”
“We have to present ourselves in such a way that tourists take us seriously. Shortly, we will be coming up with our promotional material in Thai, Chinese and some local languages of other countries. We have to promote ourselves in non-English speaking countries in their local languages only,” he added.
Meanwhile, MCL also caught up with newly appointed Airport Director Suresh Chandra Hota to know more about the AirAsia international venture and the future plans. Excerpts from the interview
Is there adequate infrastructure in the Biju Patnaik International Airport to cater to the needs of international flights on a larger scale?
Previously too, we were handling a lot of international flights. The only difference was the route – that wasn’t direct. And our airport has all the required infrastructure and facilities that is needed to accommodate international flights. Passengers’ traffic is also very encouraging and satisfactory as of now. We also have the right kind of services available for our passengers.
Are there any plans to make the flights fly on a daily basis?
Air Asia personnel have informed us that the load factor (passenger traffic or number of passengers) is very good. The tickets were all sold out for the subsequent flights. We are seeing a good response at least for the next six months. There are plans to make the flights run daily, but it would not be right to say anything as of now. It will totally depend on the demand of passengers.
What kind of boost can this initiative provide to the tourism sector?
Of course, this step will give a big boost to the tourism sector. Now since we have direct flight from here to Kuala Lumpur and vice versa, more number of people will be eager to visit the place. Also the tickets are very affordable and a common man can now dream to go abroad, at least to Malaysia.
How do you think will the trade and commerce flourish with the commencement of this international flight service?
Yes, hopefully there will be an increased business as we provide international cargo facility too. So that would be an added advantage. But it would be too premature to predict the amount of increase in business right now.
Now that direct flights to Malaysia have started operation, Bhubaneswar has also become a preferred destination for passengers from nearby states. How would that benefit?
As Air Asia has started direct flights to Bhubaneswar, the city has become a point for the catchment area. Catchment area is the stopping point of passengers from where they travel to other places. And as the airline is a low cost operator and the ticket rates are quite competitive, this is beneficial for customers. Most likely, this will give a boost to air travel as well as tourism and also increase the airport utilisation.
What potential do we have to attract other international airlines across the world?
Our airport is open round the clock and I think that is the major attraction. Then, we also have the customs and immigration facility. Thirdly, we have dedicated international terminal for international passengers. These three things are the major attractions for an airline to operate. That apart, we will also try to communicate with other international airlines to connect with Bhubaneswar. Our authority is ready to welcome any other international airline if they are interested to operate from here.
So, what are the future plans for BPIA?
Well, there are plans for expansion of BPIA. Parallel taxi track construction is also underway and we also have plans to increase the number of parking stands.