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South Asia towards greater regional air connectivity

Air connectivity in South Asia needs a 360-degree vision. At the same time, air connectivity in the region will not materialize in a substantial manner unless there is a degree of existing regional integration.

Around one fifth of the world population lives in the South Asian region and over half of the population lives in poverty. The region’s diversity provides numerous opportunities for trade, investment, and economic growth. To achieve regional cooperation and integration in the region, strengthening regional air connectivity is the major step in the process of integrated South Asia. Several regions have made significant progress by improving air connectivity through various initiatives. For example, ASEAN and EU regions have successfully implemented various measures to promote air connectivity within their regions, which has facilitated the movement of people and goods, stimulated trade and investment, and boosted tourism and cultural exchange.

Due to limited air connectivity, the number of arrivals in South Asia in 2019 was only 27 million compared to North America, 198 million; Europe, 968 million; and China 30 million. In 2018, 4.3 billion passengers were carried by Airlines, 58 million tons of freight was also carried through air. Aviation industry has also supported over 65 million jobs and contributed around 3.6 % to global GDP. Around 90 percent of (B2C) e-commerce parcels are currently carried by air. Around 6.8 trillion worth of goods exported by air. Air connectivity has the potential to be a major driver of economic growth and regional integration in South Asia as it has been in other regions.

South Asia is a region with a large population and a growing middle class; it can create a strong demand for air travel. Improved air connectivity would provide greater accessibility and convenience for people to travel within the region for business, education, tourism, and other purposes.

When it comes to the direct capital to capital and state to state air connectivity in South Asia, the study reveals that India and Sri Lanka are the only countries in the region that are well and directly connected with all the countries in the region. Around 180 carrier flights operate in a month between these two countries’ capitals, New Delhi to Colombo and vice versa, with average of 3 flights connecting each other capitals via their national flag carriers namely Sri Lankan Air Line and Air India. New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata are the major cities of India that act as regional hubs for air traffic in the region.

Currently, Pakistan is only connected to Sri Lanka through the Sri Lankan national airline and to Afghanistan through “Safi airways” and “Kam air” airlines. It’s important to note that a few years ago, there were direct flights operating between Pakistan and major South Asian countries such as India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, as well as vice versa via Pakistan national flag carrier PIA (Pakistan International Airlines). This direct connectivity led to a significant increase in tourist arrivals visiting Pakistan. However, due to regional non-economic issues and a crisis involving the country’s national airline, as of today, these direct flights no longer operate on such routes. As a result of which, connectivity between Pakistan and the rest of the South Asian countries is now being routed through third-party countries such as the UAE, Qatar, and other Middle Eastern countries.

Afghanistan is the least connected in the region and has flights only to and from Pakistan. Bangladesh also has a good connectivity with South Asian countries, except for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bhutan is only connected to India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, while no direct flight operates to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives from Bhutan.

The state of connectivity in South Asia is evolving; despite some modest progress, connectivity among capitals in South Asia is still inadequate. In order to travel between neighboring countries, it is necessary to transit in the Middle East or Southeast Asia countries which increases both cost and time of travel. These limitations in intraregional connectivity undermine the potential for interaction of traders and investors to engage potential business engagements. It is important to note here that commercial viability is also influenced by economic integration, which is also low in the region. The other issues with respect to low level of air connectivity include code sharing, visa bottlenecks, operational cost, geographic & route-specific issues, regulatory challenges and other non-economic issues.

To increase the level of air connectivity, traditional visa procedures need to be replaced by e-visas and visas on arrival across the region. This would be a major breakthrough in promoting tourism, peoples-to-people connectivity and business activities in the region; and also it would increase the demand for air travel in the region. The SAARC aviation policies need to be revived to initiate direct flight operations to all countries’ capitals. The SAARC countries’ stakeholders from both public and private sectors should meet at least once or twice a year to discuss such policy frameworks to boost aviation and other regional transport initiatives Air transport is the business of freedom, bringing tremendous benefits to the world. With the right policy framework from governments, air connectivity can grow stronger, driving even greater social and economic progress in South Asia.

This state of overall air connectivity underscores the need for a comprehensive approach to improving air connectivity in the South Asian region. The SCCI (Regional Business Organization of South Asia) has published a study titled ‘South Asia towards a Greater Regional Air Connectivity: Prospects & Challenges’ in partnership with FNST (Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom). This study examines the prospects and challenges of air connectivity in South Asia and outlines policy recommendations to enhance the overall state of air connectivity in the region. The study is also available on the SCCI website at www.saaarcchamber.org.

Ali Mufti, "South Asia towards greater regional air connectivity," Business recorder. 2023-10-08.
Keywords: Economics , Economic growth , Cultural exchange , Aviation industry , Economic integration , Economic issues , Business organization , Economic progress , Business , Education , Tourism , India , Sri Lanka , Pakistan , Afghanistan , UAE , Qatar , SCCI , PIA , GDP , SAARC

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