The US-Bangla Airlines aircraft crash at Tribhuvan International Airport on March 12 which killed 49 out of 71 people on board has raised eyebrows in the global aviation market. Following the crash, different assumptions have been made regarding what caused the accident. While Bangladeshi media reports have been blaming the air traffic control at TIA for the accident, government officials at TIA say that the charge is completely baseless. Sujan Dhungana of The Himalayan Times spoke to Raj Kumar Chhetri, general manager of TIA, to get details about the crash and other issues related to the country’s only international airport
A US-Bangla Airlines aircraft crashed in the country’s only international airport two weeks back. How have you taken the incident?
The crash itself is an undesirable incident. The fatal crash of the US-Bangla Airlines aircraft at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) has saddened not only families of those passengers who lost their lives in the accident but the entire TIA family and the country. Now our concern should be to identify the reason behind the crash and take measures to reduce such accidents in the future. A high-level six-member team, headed by former director general of Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) Yagya Prasad Gautam, has been examining the actual reasons behind the US-Bangla aircraft crash.
The US-Bangla Airlines and Bangladeshi media have been blaming the air traffic control at TIA and poor infrastructure in the airport for the crash. What is your take on it?
I have been going through the reports of different Bangladeshi media and comments from Bangladeshi authorities including officials of US-Bangla Airlines regarding the crash of US-Bangla passenger airplane at TIA on March 12. However, I have already mentioned that it is too early to judge the actual reason behind the crash. We should wait for the probe report. However, I must say that the weather in Kathmandu Valley on the day the accident occurred was good and the runway was visible. Moreover, there was no issue regarding traffic congestion at the time the fatal accident occurred. Thus, I believe that there should not have been any problem for aircraft landing at TIA on the day. I have talked to a few eyewitnesses and they have suspected of procedural flaw while landing. However, it is again an assumption. We are not in a position to say who is responsible for the crash — is it the pilot himself, the ATC, the geographical location of Kathmandu Valley or any other technical issues. The probe report will come out with answers to all these questions.
However, it is often said that the ATC at TIA operates under pressure. Is this true?
This charge is totally wrong. Like international practices, the air traffic control (ATC) at TIA operates under different shifts and every shift is changed at an interval of six hours. Any active controller at ATC will get leisure time for a few hours. In the case of the aircraft accident on March 12, all charges against TIA’s ATC are totally wrong. I completely disagree with the media reports that have blamed our ATC for creating confusion regarding the runway or giving wrong information to the pilot of the US-Bangla aircraft that crashed. Let us all wait for the probe report.
By when will the probe committee submit its report to the government?
The government has not set any deadline for the committee to submit the probe report. However, the probe committee has been mandated to submit the report as soon as possible. The probe committee comprises of experts and as per my knowledge, the committee members have been investigating the issue diligently. I expect the committee to finalise the report soon.
The TIA is also often blamed for not having sophisticated rescue mechanism. How do you evaluate the rescue efforts after the US-Bangla aircraft crash?
I read somewhere that our rescue mechanism was poor and fire fighters were not properly equipped. But these charges are not based on facts. Our rescue efforts and the rescue team were able to save the lives of 22 passengers from the burning US-Bangla aircraft. This fact alone is enough to reflect on our rescue mechanism and the efforts made during the day of the crash. Our fire rescue mechanism falls under category nine of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Our fire rescue mechanism has received the category nine standard only after meeting all the rescue parameters and standards set by ICAO. In fact, we should applaud the rescue efforts carried out by the TIA team on the day of the crash. It was very quick and I do not think that such rapid rescue is carried out in any other airport even in developed countries. We might not have sophisticated tools for rescue activities, but we had every such tool that is required during such emergencies.
How do you evaluate the infrastructure at the country’s only international airport and the upgradation process that is taking place?
Infrastructure at TIA might not be as sophisticated as that of airports in Singapore and Thailand. But the facilities at TIA are as per the international standard. However, our airport is comparatively small due to lack of space for expansion. Thus, the government has been accelerating the process of developing airports in Bhairahawa, Pokhara and Nijgadh. I believe that the Bhairahawa Airport will come into operation within the next two years. Similarly, Pokhara airport will also start operating within the next four years. Once these airports start commercial operation, it will reduce the pressure at TIA. In the case of infrastructure at TIA, work regarding expansion of terminal buildings and parking spaces is under way. I believe that the TIA upgradation process is taking place gradually and smoothly.
The frequent air traffic congestion at TIA has often raised safety concerns in the country’s aviation industry? What is being done to reduce the congestion?
I believe that the traffic congestion issue at TIA has been addressed in recent times compared to a few years back. The entire government mechanism including TIA management, CAAN and the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, is giving due focus on ways to minimise air traffic congestion at TIA. Meanwhile, we have been developing four new parking bays for bigger aircraft inside TIA, which is expected to be completed within eight months. Similarly, we are also constructing a smaller parking bay targeting small aircraft. Once the construction of these new parking bays is completed, the traffic congestion problem at TIA will be addressed to a high extent. Regarding accidents at TIA, the crash of US-Bangla aircraft is the third in the last six decades. Along with heightened concern towards aviation safety from the government and airline companies in recent years, air accidents have been
reduced significantly over the past few years.
Tourism entrepreneurs have been constantly blaming the poor condition of TIA as a major setback to tourism growth in the country. What do you have to say on this?
I have witnessed air traffic congestion at even developed airports in China and Bangkok. It is not an issue related solely to TIA. Traffic congestion and aircraft being put on hold in the sky is a normal phenomenon in busy airports like TIA. Meanwhile, it is a fact that tourism in the country has been booming in recent years. Tourism growth depends on many factors and not only the condition of the airport. However, it is true that TIA has been facing problems in expansion process due to space constraint. If we have to talk about airports in foreign countries, they have terminals and immigration offices at long distances as their airports are huge. As a result, it takes almost half an hour for passengers in other foreign airports to clear immigration and claim their baggage. However, in the case of TIA, a passenger clears immigration and reaches the baggage claim area within five to 10 minutes.
It has been reported that foreign airlines have been delaying in paying dues to TIA in recent years. What is TIA doing to address this issue?
A majority of international airlines operating in Nepal are paying their dues on time. However, it is true that Air Asia has delayed in making its payment. However, we have received commitment from the chief executive officer of Air Asia that they will clear all their dues within July. Meanwhile, we have been seeking bank guarantee worth Rs 250 million from Air Asia and have warned them that we will not allow their aircraft to operate at TIA if the company fails to do so. We are optimistic that Air Asia will clear all the dues soon. A few days earlier, the company paid Rs 15 million to TIA. I believe that payment from Air Asia was delayed in the past few years due to some internal miscommunication and conflict at the airlines. Otherwise, we have noticed that Air Asia had paid their fees to TIA in advance in earlier years.