If one wishes to spend their vacation enjoying eye-catching scenery and living above the clouds, then a visit to the villages of landlocked Nepal would be ideal.
The Himalaya mountain range alongside which the country is located is home to eight of the world’s tallest peaks, including the iconic Mount Everest.
However, even in an age when no corner of the globe seems out of reach, travelling to Nepal is fraught with danger. For those of us willing to brave the journey, there is only one gateway to Nepal’s Himalayan havens: Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu.
Even though Nepal’s economy depends mostly on foreign aid and tourism, the country’s sole international airport is in a very sorry state. In addition to a lack of infrastructural facilities and equipment, alleged mismanagement by the airport authorities have hampered its operational activities.
A 2016 survey by the airport review agency “Sleeping in Airports” ranked Tribhuvan International Airport in Nepal as the second worst airport in Asia, behind only Tashkent International Airport in Uzbekistan. The rankings are based on comfort, services, security and immigration.
“Ideally, an international airport must function like a city, where a person can find everything that one needs,” Rajesh Raj Dali, a former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), told the Kathmandu Post.
“One cannot transform the TIA in a day. The speed at which this target can be met depends on the capability of the management, ability of the country’s economy and available technology. Only then, we can meet the guidelines.”
In addition to the poor facilities on the ground, 10 fatal accidents have occurred in Nepali air space in the past eight years alone, including the US-Bangla Airlines plane crash on March 12 this year. In the latest crash, 49 people including 26 Bangladeshis lost their lives, while many of the 22 survivors were critically injured.
[caption id="attachment_252621" align="aligncenter" width="800"]
An airplane takes off at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on March 13, 2018, near the wreckage of the US-Bangla Airlines plane that crashed on March 12. At least 50 people were killed and 21 injured when the Bangladeshi plane crashed and burst into flames near Kathmandu airport, in the worst aviation disaster to hit Nepal in years AFP
Poor infrastructure and insufficient equipment
Sources at TIA said aircraft attempting to land often had to wait for over an hour for clearance due to the incapacity of the single runway to support the volume of incoming air traffic.
“A single runway at TIA is not enough,” Rajesh Raj Dali told the Kathmandu Post.
“A parallel runway is a must, so that if one of them gets closed then the other can be used. In the case of Nepal, one runway could be used for domestic flights and the other for international flights in order to ease traffic.”
The existing runway at TIA is also aged and affecting the smooth operation of aircraft, sources claimed.
Though aircraft weighing around 300 tons regularly land at the airport, when the existing runway at TIA was constructed in 1967 it was intended to only support aircraft weighing up to 196 tons.
In addition to issues with the runway, there is also a lack of taxiways, parking bay apron space, and lighting at the airfield, as well as shortages in safety and security equipment.
Confessing to the infrastructural problems and equipment crisis at TIA, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation of Nepal Joint Secretary Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane told the Dhaka Tribune that ten airlines had applied to operate their flights at the TIA in recent times, but were denied permission due to the shortages of infrastructure and equipment.
Following the March 12 US-Bangla Airlines plane crash, allegations arose that the Air Traffic Control (ATC) room of TIA had misguided the pilot.
Raj Kumar Chhetri, general manager of TIA, said they had installed a sophisticated radar system to help pilots land through the use of instrumental flying rules.
However, the pilot of the crashed plane was not asked by ATC to change from visual flight rules to instrumental, even after they had witnessed that the aircraft was in a dangerous position.
Another example of mismanagement by TIA authorities was provided by Nepal Army Lt Col Puran Ghale, a member of the rescue team who first arrived at the US-Bangla Airlines crash site.
In an interview with BBC Nepal, he said aircraft engineers did not reach the accident location in a timely manner.
“If aircraft engineers were there, they could have showed us right way to get into the wreckage. In this case, they came only after we asked them to,” Lt Col Puran Ghale said.
Confessing to a lack of specialized fire-fighting equipment, he also said: “We tried to douse the fire and rescue passengers and crew members. We split into different units, and tried to cut through the cabin to reach survivors. My unit had collapsed structure rescue equipment, but we also needed to improvise.”
In addition to management of technical issues, complaints from passengers regarding the security and service at TIA are also common.
The general manager of an international hotel in Kathmandu told the Dhaka Tribune that his guests frequently complain regarding the baggage clearing area.
“It is completely mismanaged,” he said. “Passengers on average wait for up to an hour to get their baggage.”
Moreover, the toilets are in very poor condition at the airport and the passengers’ waiting rooms are very noisy and lacking in a sufficient number of seats.
Ramesh Dhamala, executive board member of Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal, said: “People come to Nepal for the natural beauty, but once they land at TIA, the pathetic scenario that greets them gives them a negative outlook before they step out of the airport.”
Hopes for development
Raj Kumar Chhetri claimed that CAAN has taken a series of steps to expand the airport’s facilities.
He said: “The projects include enlargement of the runway, construction of new taxiways, extension of the apron, new lighting at the airfield, reform and expansion of the international terminal, installation of a new system for carrying baggage and several civil works and associated facilities.”
[caption id="attachment_254799" align="aligncenter" width="800"]
Planes often have to wait for over an hour for landing clearance at TIA, as the single runway is not sufficient for supporting incoming air traffic Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune
The hindrance to development
Despite the plans to address issues with the airport, the development of these facilities is stalled due to the political situation in the country.
Since Nepal opened up to the outside world in the 1950s, it has seen a multi-party parliamentary system, a decade-long Maoist insurgency and the abolition of its monarchy.
In addition to the development of the airport, renovation work on many heritage sites of Nepal which were damaged in an earthquake in April, 2015, are also stalled due to political infighting.
Shyam Sundar Yadav, a social activist, said he was “shocked” following the recent plane crash at the TIA.
“We have formed a social movement to make the airport safe and to call for it’s upgrade,” he said. “But, the willingness of the government is not enough to do so. There is a clear lack of leadership in the aviation sector, which is holding back the development of the airport.”