Find your wings
TIA has failed to keep up with demand and growth of airlines, both domestic and international
Tribhuwan International Airport (TIA) is the sole air entryway to Nepal and is infamous for poor infrastructure, poor hygiene and increasing delays travellers have to face due to air traffic holds. The inability of TIA to grow in pace with the increasing number of aircraft and passengers has led to continual air traffic congestions putting people seeking punctual service at regular difficulty.
TIA first started its service in 20 February, 1950. Eventually in 1992, Liberal Sky Policy, an open sky policy wherein private airlines were allowed to serve the public, was introduced. This policy paved a path for private airlines to fly passengers to and from various parts of Nepal. Over the decades, the number of international and domestic airlines operating in Nepal has increased, amplifying air traffic congestion. According to the Civil Aviation Report 2016, there are a total of 28 international airlines operating in Nepal. Similarly, there are 22 domestic airlines catering to the need of the air transportation seekers within Nepal. Reportedly, international and domestic flight movement had decreased in 2015 due to devastating earthquake but significantly increased in 2016 sprouting the usual air traffic delays that TIA is known for.
When asked about the prevalent problem of air traffic; Prem Nath Thakur, Spokesperson at TIA quotes, “The past months saw a lot of air traffic congestion as tourists started arriving in droves from the month of October onward. Most visitors are here to see the mountains and hence the number of mountain flights operated per day also increase. This contributes to the delays of scheduled flights during this season.” According to him, bad weather conditions and poor road infrastructure has given rise to the number of people choosing to fly. He says, “The road ways have become risky compelling travellers to use air transportation facilities which have inadvertently increased air traffic.”
The increase in the number of fliers and tourists is good news for airlines and in the long run the economy, but TIA has failed to keep up with demand and growth of airlines both international and domestic. Speaking with THT Perspectives, Suman Pandey, Chairman of Pacific Asia Travel Association quotes, “Due to the authority’s inability to make time-bound infrastructure developments we have had to face a lot of air traffic congestion. Future requirements should be kept into consideration while looking into infrastructure developments. However, failure to address all these needs has had an accumulated effect resulting to such problems.”
Vivek Jain, Country Manager of Silk Air says, “There has been a considerable increase in international and domestic flights. However, the parking bays are still limited. Delays occur due to flights causing a chain effect.” Citing the fact that TIA does not operate 24/7, he informs, “We have a limited time period to operate here due to which we have to face such challenges.” Currently, the airport remains closed from 12:30 am-6:30 am. When asked about the prospect of operating the airport 24 hours a day to lessen the traffic burden, Thakur notifies that it is next to impossible to do so at the present. He quotes, “The run way and other equipment requires constant maintenance and unless other alternatives are introduced it is not possible to function around the clock.”
TIA airport was originally designed to handle 1,340 passengers per hour but the airport today has been handling more than 1,900 to 2,000 passengers on an hourly basis. According to the Flight Movement Data provided by Civil Aviation Authority Nepal (CAAN) the year 2017 between the months January and June saw passenger movement of 3,649,265 passengers in both domestic and international flights with a total of 91,488 aircraft movement. However staggeringly huge the figures, little has been done to accommodate this rise in number of passengers and aircraft. Currently, TIA has a single 10,007 feet runway which both international and domestic aircraft use. There are nine international parking bays for commercial, cargo and chartered planes whereas 17 parking bays are available fordomestic aircraft. Suraj Dhonju, Social Media Manager at Saurya Airlines says, “There is no parking space to contain the growing number of aircraft. Many airlines have added ATR aircraft which are comparatively bigger andrequire bigger space.” He adds, “In most cases we cannot regulate timely information regarding the delays that puts our customers at a disadvantage. We get numerous complaints regarding delays of domestic flights but by now everyone has become accustomed to it.”
Impact on economy
“People use airlines for timely service but observing the current scenario it is evident that people are not getting the service that airlines promise,” says Bhola Bikram Thapa, President at President Travels. He adds, “The airports are supposed to leave a lasting positive impression on international and domestic tourists, but TIA has failed to leave an affirmative mark. This does not send a good message to the tourists and as a result the tourism industry will suffer.” Tourism is one of the largest sources of foreign exchange and revenue in Nepal. Nevertheless, if air traffic holds continue at this rate it is evident that the economy will also be adversely affected. “Safety hazard increases with the increase in congestion that will definitely make Nepal a reluctant destination in terms of tourism,” opines Thapa.
It is a given that Nepal has high potential in terms of tourism hence it is a must to upgrade and construct better air transportation system of international calibre with special focus on long haul connectivity to other continents of the world. New international routes must be increased in order to generate more revenue through air transport.
To address the current problems seen due to air traffic congestion, TIA is adding five parking bays out of which two are for wide body aircraft and three for narrow body aircraft. Thakur informs that the runway too is being expanded a further 300 metres to facilitate a wider safety margin. Nevertheless, the need for another International Airport has long been recognised. Aware of the requirements, Gautam Buddha International Airport is under construction at Bhairahawa with plans to make it the second international airport. Similarly, preliminary works are under way after the acquirement of land for another international airport at Nijgadh. The foundation stone for Pokhara International Airport was laid on April 14, 2016. “The initial works for another airport is currently taking place in Nijgadh. Comparatively, most amount of construction work has also been completed in Bhairahawa,” says Trilochan Poudyal, Information Officer at CAAN. The construction work for Gautam Buddha International Airport and Nijgadh Airport is expected to be over by early 2018 and December 2018 respectively. The current air traffic congestion at TIA is expected to decrease by 40 per cent once the Gautam Buddha International Airport comes into operation. The establishment of another international airport will also relieve the current airport of its parking problems. “Once the traffic is diverted we can think about operating the airport around the clock. Also, flights leaving to gulf countries are expected to take place through another airport after its operation,” shares Thakur.
TIA improvement project
Having landed itself on the list of one of the worst airports in the world, there are no doubts that TIA needs improvements focussing on every single aspect to facilitate the demand for a competent airport. With the objective of enhancing safety and capacity of the only international airport, TIA Improvement Project was implemented on 6 December 2010 with the deadline set for March 2015. The $92 million dollar project’s deadline was pushed back to 2019 with the termination of the previous Spanish contractor Constructora San Jose on December 2016. The contractor was terminated for inefficiency having failed to meet deadlines and complete construction works on time. With the appointment of a new contractor, Shanxi Construction Engineering Group from China the project is under implementation with plans to build a new international terminal, extend runway, parallel taxiway and domestic apron. It remains to be seen if the project will meet its extended deadline which is vital to achieve a safe and reliable air transport system.
With slow pace development and construction projects, it remains to be seen if TIA will lose its tag of one of the worst airports in the world or not. It is evident that after the completion and operation of second international airport and expansion of TIA the strain that the current airport system is facing will loosen considerably facilitating both international and domestic travellers. However, the scenario at present remains a nuisance that everyone has to deal with. Bhuwan Nepal, who was travelling from Bhairahawa to Kathmandu, complains of a 3-hour delay. He says, “I chose to travel by air for timely service, but I believe the inefficiency of the airport paired with the lack of management by the authority has caused inconvenience for all the passengers.” Many travellers flying to the mountains or even just to the next city took to social media to voice their annoyance over flight delays at TIA. Reportedly, most flights were rescheduled at least thrice before finally taking off. Most of the flyers were disgruntled tourists taking flights to Lukla.
Thakur believes that travellers will experience smooth operations at TIA around December which marks the end of the tourist season in Nepal. However, that remains beside the point because it is TIA’s prerogative to find solutions before the commencement of the tourist season in order for visitors to have a pleasant experience in Nepal.