” Focusing on the target 2 million tourists for VNY 2020, we’re operating different projects to accommodate the growing number of tourists”

2019-07-25, Kathmandu

Rajan Pokhrel is the Director General of Civil Aviation Authority Nepal (CAAN). Pokhrel, who has been in Nepal’s civil aviation for 29 years, is a man who has worked in challenging environments and driven to overcome them. He sat down with travreport.com to talk about the current situation, challenges and issues facing civil aviation and tourism in Nepal. Excerpts:

What plan does CAAN have for VNY 2020? Will TIA, the only international airport in Nepal be able to handle the inflow of the targeted 2 million tourists?

There has already been a 33 per cent increase in the tourist inflow this year. There is around 14 per cent (international) and 15 per cent (domestic) growth in air traffic seen annually. To manage the growth in air traffic, we’ve been trying to upgrade our infrastructure. The airport is in operation for up to 21 hrs a day now but still hasn’t been fully utilised. The traffic is congested because the slots for international and domestic flights are almost during the same operation period. We’ve been trying to build strategies to minimise the air traffic at TIA.

Focusing on the target of 2 million tourists for VNY 2020, we’re operating different projects to accommodate the growing number of tourists. We’ve recently completed the first phase of rehabilitation of TIA runway and the airport was back to operating 21 hrs a day from July 1.

From September 1 to December 31 we will again be closing down the TIA from 11:30 pm to 6:30 am. During that period we will complete the second phase of the rehabilitation project and this will definitely support VNY 2020. We will also be expanding our airport hall with a capacity of 1000 passengers with six boarding gates and the baggage handling area with an additional two conveyor belts. We hope the expansion works in both arrival and departure areas will be completed by December.

The Gautam Buddha Airport (GBI) will also be complete by the first quarter of 2020. GBI was almost a hopeless project but we revived it by ending our previous contract and finding new builders. If completed by 2020 GBI will definitely help reduce TIA’s traffic.

What is CAAN doing to improve its service delivery for international as well as domestic tourists?

In the operation of an airport there is involvement of many stakeholders and agencies in the service delivery sector. Airport operators play an important role in infrastructure. Likewise, airline operators along with different other government agencies like customs, immigration, security et cetera play a direct role in passenger processing and facilitation. We’ve been doing our part to improve service delivery. Other parts of TIA like immigration are also planning to modernise their counters. We’ve been trying to develop TIA as a boutique airport.

There have also been upgrades in the domestic airports like terminal expansion and facility improvements, an extra helipad has been installed in areas like Lukla and Simikot.

We have also mobilised hospitality students with the help of NATHM (Tourism and Hotel Management Nepal Academy) at the TIA.

Why did the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the European Union (EU) suggest the splitting up of CAAN? How do you plan to implement it?

CAAN right now has two parts – a regulator and a service provider. The regulator regulates the quality of service the service providers avail. CAAN manages the airport and its services. The concern of the international organisations is that, when an institution regulates its own services there comes a question of authority and morality. It’s like checking your own answer sheet. When a regulator itself is providing services we can’t assume that it is being fairly regulated.

ICAO proposed this in 2009 after it’s universal safety oversight audit programme. Nepal also signed a MoU with Asian Development Bank in 2010 which led to the establishment of a Civil Aviation Capacity Enhancement Project which would oversee the separation of CAAN. To ensure these two acts have been formulated and gone to the respective ministries — the Service Provider Organisation Act and the Civil Aviation Authority Act. These are yet to be passed by the parliament.We at CAAN fully support this idea of separation.

Even a simple incident on the runway can cause the country’s only international  airport to shut down. Why is TIA so inefficient and what is being done to ensure the airport is not shut down so frequently?

Runway safety related incidents occur everywhere in the world not just in Nepal. Such incidents do not cause much casualties. The only concern here is that we need to pull out the aircraft without any further damage to the aircraft.

It is not easy to pull an aircraft off the runway as it takes 7-9 hours to do that even with all the required equipment. We try our best to not let such incidents happen and even when it does, we have a backup team of good engineers, technicians and equipment.

Obviously there are limitations but we can’t compare our airports to the airports of Singapore and Doha, they are privatised airports and ours is a government airport. We have been working to improve conditions and comparatively the conditions are definitely improving.

There has been a lot of criticism of the Nijgadh International Airport project? What is CAAN’s stand?

Nijgadh is the best alternative to TIA. Nijgadh is at an ideal distance from the capital. There is no space anywhere else. There has been a feasibility study regarding the second international airport which also showed Nijgadh to be the most suitable place. It’s airspace also falls under the control zone of Nepal. The availability of the fast track is another thing that facilitates the Nijgadh Airport.

Nepal government also considered Nijgadh in the Investment Summit where some companies had shown interest in building the airport. The government is also looking at foreign investors through the Investment Board. The decision as to who to award the contract for the airport is yet to be made. Whereas we’ve been looking into the preliminary works like fencing the area, compensating owners of the land, required paperwork et cetera.

The main hurdle being the trees, the concerned ministry after evaluating the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has already given a green flag to clear out the forest area so there’s no question in that. We can’t only look at the environmental aspect but rather go forward with a holistic approach. We have abundant forest areas in Nepal, we’re regularly organising plantations. But there is just one international airport. Either we should be able to say that no we don’t need a second airport or we just accept the cost of its development. It’s not only Nepal’s job to advocate for the environment.

It’s not that we don’t care about the environment at all. We are trying our best to move forward in a zero impact approach and we will continue to try our best to mitigate the harm to the environment whether by diverting river routes or by compensating with more trees.

CAAN is dynamic and gets a lot of international attention and criticism unlike others. We have been doing better than the ICAO standards for civil aviation. But there’s still a lot more to learn. We are trying our best to improve standards even more.

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