Upward Trajectory

8 min read
12 Aug 2016
8 min read
1582 words
When Buddha Air was launched two decades ago, Birendra Bahadur Basnet could hardly have imagined that the company would become one of the largest and most popular domestic carriers

Tell us something about your childhood.

I had a fairly comfortable upper-middle class upbringing. I am very grateful to my parents for giving me a secure childhood and the opportunity to get a good education. I was the second batch of graduates from Budanilkantha School, which is still one of the best schools in Nepal.

So from a secure, safe haven to unchartered territory in business—why this risky move?

My father inspired me to do more with my life. To be honest, I wanted to start a business so that I could create the opportunity to generate income, which would make my life comfortable. I come from an agricultural background, and I belong to the first generation of entrepreneurs in my family. When I decided to start an airline, a lot of people ridiculed this decision. My team and I didn’t have any equity, so we had to start with debt finance.

Why the airline business?

At that time, we were just scanning for viable business opportunities, and one of them happened to be opening an airline. When we started in the 90s, Royal Nepal Airlines was not particularly successful, and there was a void in the domestic aviation market. It was this gap that prompted us to take a chance. Making up our minds was the easiest part; convincing people was another story altogether. A lot of airlines at that time were not doing well, and we were ready to risk five million US dollars on an 18-seat aircraft. Most people thought we had lost our minds, including the then US ambassador to Nepal.

Tell us about the first time you saw the airplane at the airport.

I vividly remember the date, time, and even the first time I saw the plane, with the blue and beige Buddha Air logo. It was three days before Dashain, and we had just reached Tinkune around dusk. I caught sight of the plane landing, with our logo illuminated on its tail. That was the proudest moment of my life. That scene will be etched in my memory forever.

What were the challenges you faced 20 years ago?

The Ministry of Civil Aviation was very positive because they wanted private investment in the aviation sector. However, the management aspect was not easy. Back then, we were doing everything with pen, pencil and paper. I would say we were one of the first companies, if not the only one, who eventually went paperless. We automated everything and invested in software development, which helped streamline our system and aided our management team. This trend of reinventing ourselves has not stopped; we are the first airline in Nepal to adopt e-ticketing.

From one aircraft to the largest fleet in the domestic airline sector—any suggestions on expanding business?

It’s a lot of factors—luck, hard work, having realistic goals, a good business plan and taking care of a large number of staff. Everybody is as important as the other, irrespective of his or her position in the company. In the end, it’s all about teamwork, and we need to promote a sense of dedication and loyalty in every individual. If we do not help our staff and respect our team members, we cannot be profitable.

Buddha Air has a union. How have you managed the accord?

This happened after the Maoist ascendancy. Some of our workers wanted to start a union, and when they approached me, I gave them the green signal, with the caveat that there was to be no political agenda or disruption at work. I warned them that if anybody came up with political or party-based slogans, I would close this airline. They voted and 99.5 per cent of our staff opted for independent union. Though the union still stands, we haven’t had any clashes. I guess, we are catering to the needs of our employees. To reiterate what I said, when you dedicate the company to all of its employees, they will take care of it.

We were never just about expanding or adding jets for the sake of it. Having said that, you have to keep growing or else you run the risk of stagnation
How hard is it to maintain transparency in businesses?

If you are running a business, it’s paramount that you have a proper and transparent bookkeeping system. In a service-oriented business like an airline, it does not help to take shortcuts. Whatever business you do, just remember that you are in it for the long haul. This has allowed us to keep our records straight—we have been able to prove our profits and have provided bonuses to our entire staff.

What were some of the fear-factor moments in your business?

In 2001, the aviation industry wasn’t doing great, and we were still trying to pay off our debts. So looking back, I think that was the leanest phase for our company. However, backed by an excellent team, we were able to pay off our loans of around Rs 70 million within six years of starting the company. Another low phase for me was when one of our Beechcrafts crashed in September 2011. I would say that made us realise that we are not invincible and that accidents do happen.

Buddha Air boasts its own private hangar within the Tribhuvan International Airport premises. Tell us something about this state-of-the-art facility.

Every aircraft with more than 40 seats requires a hangar facility. Since it was a requirement, we decided to invest around 2.5 million US dollars (Rs 25 crore) to build this state-of-the-art property, which we use regularly. The best part about this hangar is that it provides a one-roof solution for all our operational and engineering needs, as well as for our ground-handling departments. Everybody has an office at the hangar, and this cohesive environment is conducive to running a smooth operation. Also, we outsource hangar facilities to Bangladesh and plan on extending our services to other South Asian countries in the near future.

Every organisation and business house gets involved in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). What is Buddha Air doing in this area?

We are working with the marginalised farming community in Sunsari and Morang, and our aim is to bring a shift in the way we do agriculture. We are trying to upgrade the way we have been farming by mechanising agriculture. The whole idea of CSR is to build a system that provides opportunities for people, so that they can stand on their own feet and are not dependent on donations or aid. I guess, farming is in my genes, and this is my way of giving back to society.

What’s your recipe for success?

In business, you’re better off focusing on one project at a time. We have dedicated 20 years in making Buddha Air the safest and most efficient domestic airliner. We were never just about expanding or adding jets for the sake of it. Having said that, you have to keep growing or else you run the risk of stagnation. Our next mission is to start international flights from Pokhara when the airport there is complete.

It’s been said: “One has to start early if he or she is to succeed.” Do you agree with this notion?
You can start at any age; there is no age limit to learning. I would definitely want to retire at 60 and study  after that. I’m not trying to get a glorified master’s degree or a doctorate; I just want to study as I was denied that opportunity while running my business. As long as you stay fit and healthy, there’s no such thing as retiring from learning and trying out new things.