Stakeholders question govt strategy to retain air carriers

From Our Special Correspondent

GUWAHATI: Lack of proper strategy and sustained promotion on the part of the government to retain airlines operating from the LGBI Airport here to international destinations have affected long-term viability of direct flight services, stakeholders here opine.
If it was Spice Jet which suspended its Guwahati-Dhaka flight last year, a few weeks after launch, Thailand-headquartered low-cost carrier, Nok Air temporarily suspended its twice-weekly Guwahati-Bangkok flights from Monday, just about four months after it began the service.
Back in 2003, the sole international flight from Guwahati to Bangkok had to be grounded, months after its launch.
“The Assam government’s inability to retain services provided by foreign air operators is a big blow to the country’s Act East Policy initiative. The state government should have officially joined hands with these airlines taking the entire responsibility of marketing and popularising the flights to Bangkok, Singapore, Bhutan and vice-versa,” Rajesh Das, vice-president of the Industries and Trade Fair Association of Assam ( ITFAA ), told The Shillong Times here on Monday.
“Apart from publicity campaigns in all the Northeastern state capitals and its airports, the Assam government should have made its presence in the two international airports in Bangkok, Phuket and also in Singapore by installing billboards inside the airports informing the tourists about the direct connectivity,” Das said.
On the contrary, he said, tour operators from Kolkata are promoting flights to these destinations. “But awareness about these international flights from Guwahati is very low among both domestic and international travellers. Apart from government, the organisers of government sponsored events inside and outside the North East India should have promoted these international flights. Cancellations of these flights will send a very wrong signal to other interested flight operators from foreign countries,” he added.
The Nok Air move, though temporary, comes as a setback to the Centre’s Act East Policy which puts thrust on boosting air connectivity and trade between Northeast India and South East Asian cities.
The Assam industries and commerce minister, who is also in-charge of Act East Policy affairs, however could not be contacted for comment despite phone calls and texts.
Asked why campaigns promoting the state as a destination were not taken up aggressively in South East Asia, which is closer home, unlike its recent ventures in Europe, a top official in the Assam Tourism Development Corporation, agreed that there was much needed to be done in this regard. “But along with the tourism department it would soon organise road-shows in ASEAN countries to promote Assam,” he said.
Some are also questioning the feasibility of such flight services in the absence of sustained trade between Northeast India and Thailand, or for that matter, any other South East Asian country.
“It is apparent that homework and research fall short when it comes to the viability of such ventures in the absence of proper inter-country trade, which is why we have these starts and stops,” a trader here said.
Meanwhile, Guwahati airport director, Ramesh Kumar informed that international arrivals to and departures from LGBI airport have shown a declining trend of late. “The seat occupancy of the Nok Air flight to Bangkok has been inconsistent and at times dived to one-third of the 180-seater aircraft’s capacity. However, the airport has all the available infrastructure and facilities for both domestic and international travellers,” Kumar said.
The “start-stop” trend has left many tour operators and travellers disappointed and worried even as they hope that services would be resumed as committed.
“This was the only direct flight to Bangkok and its abrupt suspension, though temporary, means that we will lose some valuable clients over the period,” rued Utpal Saikia, the proprietor of a travel agency here.
As it is, passengers who had booked tickets during the suspension period (January 20 to April 11, 2020) of Nok Air flights to Bangkok, would be refunded by the company. But many are wondering whether they would now have to buy tickets at higher rates.
“I think apart from the refund, we should be compensated as we now have to book tickets at higher rates. It is unfair,” a social media post, read.
Currently, only two international flights – Guwahati-Singapore and Guwahati-Paro – both operated by Bhutan-based Druk Airlines, remain functional.

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