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30 Oct, 2006

More Flights from Thailand to Buddhist Circuit Sites

Buddhist pilgrims heading for the holy sites in India are set to benefit from a bonanza of new flights connecting Bangkok directly to the cities of Bodhgaya and Varanasi as of the winter schedule 2006/2007, effective this week.

The thrice weekly flights each by INDIAN (formerly known as Indian airlines) and Thai Airways International will boost the position of Bangkok as an Asian aviation hub and allow both Thailand and India to tap into one of the fastest growing segments of air travel — pilgrimage tourism.

Bodhgaya and Varanasi, respectively the site of Buddha’s enlightenment and where Buddha preached his first sermon, are two of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage centres.

Both airlines will be operating to Bodhgaya on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, INDIAN using an 146-seat A320 and THAI a 149-seat Boeing 737-400. Larger aircraft cannot be used because of runway restrictions and inability to make night landings. Varanasi will be operated only by Thai Airways, but faces the same airport restrictions.

The flights will be entirely new for THAI and an upgrade for INDIAN which has been operating a single weekly frequency to Bodhgaya from Bangkok since 2003, but only during the winter season.

Made possible by India’s open sky policy which allows ASEAN airlines to operate to 18 cities in India, the new flights will be a special landmark for THAI. It will become the only non-Indian airline to operate to both Bodhgaya and Varanasi, and also raise its total number of Indian destinations to eight, more than any other country on its routnet.

Both INDIAN and THAI say that the new routes will be hugely important to their yields and profitability. Both are to operate these flights only during the winter season when there is maximum demand for pilgrimage traffic.

INDIAN will operate two non-stop flights on Monday and Saturday to/from Bodhgaya while the Wednesday flight will be via Guwahati, allowing for more than 1,600 seats on the sector in each direction. Last year during the Oct-Jan period INDIAN operated 42 extra flights to/from Bodhgaya to cater to demand.

This year, INDIAN is offering special group fares and has also introduced special packages that include surface travel to Patna and Varanasi with onward connections by air to New Delhi and then back to Bangkok. Pilgrims can also return via Mumbai from where INDIAN operates a daily service to Bangkok.

While INDIAN has made major inroads into capturing the local market, THAI’s Vice President, Marketing Development and Support, Pandit Chanapai, said the airline expects to attract a lot of the Thai upmarket traffic, including delegations from the Royal Family and Buddhist universities, temples and monasteries.

He said THAI eventually expects about 50% of the load to be generated by pilgrims from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China transiting via Bangkok. The new flights have been timed to provide easy connections with the incoming THAI flights from those points and structured as a triangular operation to support special packages that allow the pilgrims to do five- or seven-day tours through both the holy cities.

Special promotional fares have been launched both in Thailand as well as in Northeast Asia.

A special crew will operate the flights which will leave in the morning and return at night, requiring no crew layover in India. Inflight product and services are also being adjusted accordingly, including vegetarian meals and alcohol being served only upon demand.

THAI’s flights will be stopped in summer 2007 when demand drops as it becomes either too hot or too wet in India. INDIAN’s Bangkok-based manager Rakesh Bhatia said no flights were operated this past summer but the airline has not yet decided what it will do next summer.

Mr Pandit said the new flights would go for long way towards boosting Thai revenues from India which is already the fourth most important market in terms of profitability after China, Japan and Korea.

THAI now flies to Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore. In addition to the new Buddhist circuit flights, it also announced its 8th Indian destination, Hyderabad, which along with Bangalore, is attracting dozens of Silicon Valley companies.

Mr Pandit said the Hyderabad flights have been timed to link up with THAI’s non-stop flights to the US, allowing the airline to compete directly with the non-stop US flights by Singapore Airlines, which also serves both Hyderabad and Bangalore.

In addition to seeking the possibility of upgrading to a daily service to Kolkata, and putting more wide-body seat capacity to other Indian cities, THAI is exploring new cities like Amritsar, Jaipur and Ahmedabad, Mr Pandit said.

INDIAN’s winter schedule to India has also been improved, with the timings of flights to New Delhi and Mumbai being adjusted to afternoon departures from Bangkok. The airline is also the only one operating from Bangkok to Nagpur, the central Indian city set to become the site of a huge Boeing aircraft maintenance centre in future.

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