'Japanese grant radars to cost CAAN dear'

Kathmandu, September 29

While the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA)-modernisation project under the aegis of Japan International Cooperation Agency is all set to commission airspace surveillance radars at the sole international airport and Bhattedanda (south of Kathmandu Valley) in a few months, the equipment has not only found to be unproven but also substantially overpriced, according to stakeholders.

Japanese NEC-supplied radars that the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) received as grant worth Rs 906 million from the government of Japan in 2014 are also unlikely to meet mandatory technical requirements specified by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a CAAN director shared.

ICAO requires the ground equipment to be of very high quality in terms of reliability, availability and integrity in order to ensure safety of flights. Besides, the radar systems must be capable of providing ‘safety nets’ that allow air traffic controllers to intervene in a timely manner when aircraft get within unsafe distances.

Though new radars are said to have been custom-built for Nepal and no identical facilities exist anywhere else, the high base price of the Japanese radar translates into higher spare parts cost in the equipment’s life cycle, said another CAAN director.

Interestingly, field-proven radar equipment with identical features have recently been acquired by many countries, including India, from European manufacturers at about one-third the price.

“It is here CAAN’s double standards come to light — on the one hand when CAAN floats tenders for sensitive aviation ground equipment, only suppliers with proven equipment are shortlisted, while on the other the safety philosophy gets unceremoniously chucked out of the window when grant is received,” he added.

It is virtually impossible to find a Japanese aviation equipment manufacturer winning open tenders abroad in comparison to the towering brands like Sony, Canon, and Toyota. It remains to be seen what liabilities the NEC radars will bring in the course of its service, another air traffic controller at TIA said, claiming that bid specifications were highly tailored to allow NEC to walk away with the trophy.

Even the Toshiba-supplied radar system currently in operation at the TIA lacked the minimum safe altitude warning safety nets from the very beginning and its painful lack was felt repeatedly in multiple crashes — Lufthansa Cargo Flight 8533 (1999), Necon Air flight (1999) and Buddha Air Beechcraft (2011).

Though the crashes were customarily attributed to crew error, the flight crew community still continues to blame “little or no assistance from ground” while the in-house investigation chose to overlook this important fact out of prejudice and ignorance, a ministry official said.

“Clearly, the new radar system is unlikely to meet the ICAO stipulations and will continue to bother air safety in the next decade as well,” a Nepal Airlines captain said, adding that the other identical grant-story is that of the MA-60 aircraft.