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Nagidanda named best spot for new domestic airport

- SANGAM PRASAIN, Kathmandu

The hilltop of Nagidanda in Kavrepalanchok district is the best site among the three spots studied to build a domestic airport close to the Kathmandu Valley, the report of the government technical study group said.

The government has been scouting possible locations for a short take off and landing (STOL) airport as a staging point for flights to Lukla in a bid to free up slots at severely congested Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). Lukla airport, located in the eastern Himalaya at an elevation of 2,845 metres, is the gateway to Everest and the third busiest in the country after Kathmandu and Pokhara.

The study group presented its report to Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari on Thursday recommending that the proposed airport be built at Nagidanda.

Metrological conditions (wind and visibility), instrument flight procedure and air route procedure and safety assessment procedure with respect to TIA need to be addressed at the very beginning of the project cycle, the report said. The other two sites studied were Thulichour at Dhulikhel and Thulichour at Chisapani, both in Kavre district.

A copy of the report obtained by the Post said that the procurement process would take a year, and the construction of the airport would take at least four years. Meanwhile, exclusive infrastructure for surface connectivity between Kathmandu and the proposed airport needs to be addressed by the government, the report said.

A preliminary analysis indicates that the average effect of STOL aircraft is about 31 percent of the air traffic movement per day at TIA which can be diverted to the new domestic airport. The new facility can be feasible to connect airports like Lukla, Phaplu, Tumlingtar, Bhojpur, Lamidanda, Meghauli, Dang, Bharatpur and Jomsom.

“Helicopter operation, if shifted to the new site, will reduce communication load to the tower by 15-20 percent,” the study report said. “A rigorous study should be carried for the possibility of identifying a technically, financially and socially feasible and sustainable airport with the least conflict of operation with that at TIA.”

Technical and financial aspects

Recently, a team consisting of government and Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (Caan) officials visited the site at Nagidanda to revive a plan which has been dropped by four successive governments in the past seven years.

During the inspection, it was found that out of the 84 hectares of land available at Nagidanda, 22 hectares are privately owned. Meanwhile, millions of cubic metres of soil will need to be moved to level the construction site. At some places, 500-metre ravines need to be filled with earth by cutting away parts of nearby hills.

According to Caan, a STOL airport with a 1,200-metre runway will cost around Rs5 billion. An airfield with an 800-metre runway can be built for Rs3.5 billion. A 5-km double lane road will have to be built to reach the proposed airport, which will add another Rs5 billion to the cost. This means the government will have to spend nearly Rs10 billion to execute the airport project.

With regard to the technical aspects, the study shows that the aerial distance between TIA and the proposed site is too short at 8.5 nautical miles (15.74 km), which raises the possibility of traffic conflict with Kathmandu. East-bound traffic from Kathmandu will cross the proposed airport airspace, and will be very close to TIA in case there is a missed approach. 

No private sector

Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari’s plan to build the airport is aimed at reducing congestion at TIA which is caused mainly by Lukla flights. During peak season, the swarm of trekkers and mountaineers headed for Everest keeps TIA constantly busy. Lukla witnessed a record 130 take-offs and landings on a single day last April.

In such a situation, if a flight were to be disrupted due to bad weather in Lukla, rescheduling it will create massive chaos at TIA, hampering smooth operation of international flights.

While some experts have raised questions about the financial and technical aspects of the proposed airport, there is no initiative to involve the private sector in its construction.

“The government should not invest or build and operate airports. It should take the private sector on board,” said an expert who did not wish to be named. 

“The proposed Nagidanda airport is financially feasible if it is operated by the private sector. It can be made a tourist airport as well, given its position and location.”

For example, a cable car can be installed to reach to the hilltop which will cost less than building a 5-km double-lane road to the airport. “Another point is the Lukla appeal. Traffic in Lukla will continue to grow in the future. And based on traffic forecast, the airport can earn money,” the expert said.

For example, the 25-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is the world’s most expensive route which costs Rs18,000 per person one-way. “If the private sector constructs and operates the airport, it can generate income by charging higher fees, something which Caan cannot do. Hence, the government should not be involved in airport infrastructure now.”     

The plan to construct a new domestic airport was originally floated in 2011 by the then tourism minister Hisila Yami. Three successive tourism ministers spoke about building it, but they all eventually abandoned the scheme.

Published: 2018-05-20 08:25:01