- By Region
An air shuttle service is to provide the first daily flights between Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon, and the burgeoning new capital of Naypyidaw, ending the 12-hour return trip over bumpy roads, as the country takes another step towards opening up to the global economy.
The service will “revolutionise” life, according to one Yangon-based executive, for government officials, foreign diplomats, business executives and Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, who regularly make the 660km round trip.
The operator, First Myanmar Investment, is set to announce the service this week, offering four flights a day from September 9. Up to now, the only alternative to travelling by road has been an erratic, occasional air service that is often cancelled at the last minute.
Although the service will immediately benefit VIP visitors to Naypyidaw, the government and private sector see it as a critical addition as Myanmar prepares to host the Southeast Asian Games and other gatherings such as the World Economic Forum next year, and to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014.
Serge Pun, one of Myanmar’s wealthiest businessmen and chairman of First Myanmar Investment, said he decided to lease the aircraft and start the service because of the time he was spending on the road journey. “I am not in the airline business but I always wanted to do this. I hate that 11-hour journey – and clearly, it is something the market needs.”
Naypyidaw, built in relative secrecy on a sparsely populated site in central Myanmar under the former military regime in the early 2000s, has expanded rapidly in size and importance since it opened in 2006. It has grown from a skeleton population of about 300,000 bureaucrats, military personnel and villagers to almost a million, and visitors have increased from a handful to several thousand a week.
The city hosts the country’s sprawling, combined houses of parliament, its ministries, military headquarters, some branches of foreign offices including embassies, and most recently the Asian Development Bank, which opened its Naypyidaw office this month.
As well as all the infrastructure for the SEA Games, more than 20 hotels are being built or have just opened, and many more will come, according to tourism officials. Yangon runs frequent flights to tourist destinations such as Mandalay, but no operator has set up regular flights to Naypyidaw because of a lack of capacity, the consultant Vriens & Partners noted in a recent report on Myanmar’s investment opportunities.
All that is now changing, particularly after western governments eased sanctions this year, noted Vriens. “Sanctions prohibited airlines from properly maintaining and upgrading aircraft… Flights are infrequent to many destinations but schedules are growing to meet new demand from both tourists and local citizens.”
At present, budget travellers to and from Naypyidaw can take coach services to Yangon for Kt13,000, or about $15. But for VIPs, both foreign and domestic, cars are the only option, and many make the trip four or even five times a week. One government adviser, who lives in Yangon but is frequently in Naypyidaw, described it as the “most unproductive, costly use of time and energy”. As Myanmar lacks 3G networks, “you can’t even sit in a car or bus and do your emails”, he said.
The new service, under the name FMI Air Charter, offers two aircraft, a 44-seat twin turboprop ATR 42 and a 16-seat Beechcraft, that will ply the route in 50 minutes. Although the flights will cost $160, nearly three times the amount charged for the local airline’s occasional flights, Mr Pun says it is a small price to pay. “I am very optimistic, I think everyone who goes to Naypyidaw on business – or vice versa – needs this,” Mr Pun said.