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Traffic congestion at TIA stokes safety concerns

- SANGAM PRASAIN, Kathmandu

Aug 19, 2017-Air traffic controllers (ATCs) and pilots are bracing themselves for the upcoming peak travel season which begins in September as record high aircraft movements have been projected.

They are particularly concerned by potential long delays and holds at severely congested Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) which may negatively impact safety. The country’s sole international airport has been strained to capacity, and delays and holds have become customary.

“We seem to be putting ourselves in a chaos situation again,” said Captain Rabindra Dangol, general secretary of the Nepal Pilots Association, speaking at a seminar entitled Aviation Safety Challenges in Nepal & Way Forward and TIA Capacity Congestion. The meet was organized by the Nepal Air Traffic Controllers’ Association.

“Imagine how many problems an hour’s delay would create both on the ground and in the air. A tourist spends thousands of rupees to go to Lukla, but the flight is eventually cancelled because of traffic congestion,” he said.

Dangol said that operating helicopters from other temporary helipads and mountain flights from Pokhara during the peak travel season would ease congestion. “The airport authority should make a note of this.”  

The September-November period is Nepal’s peak tourist season, which accounts for as much as 35 percent of the year’s total tourist arrivals. In addition, autumn is Nepal’s main festival season when thousands of migrant workers and other Nepalis living abroad return home to celebrate Dashain and Tihar with their families.

A sharp rise in demand for air seats during this festival season has been predicted as major highways connecting Kathmandu with the rest of the country are in bad shape due to floods, landslides and delayed repairs. 

During the peak season, TIA normally handles at least 420 flight movements (including 100 flights by foreign carriers) daily, a twofold jump from five years ago. The increase in aircraft movements has resulted in severe traffic congestion, and TIA lacks adequate parking bays.

This autumn, the traffic situation is expected to be especially busy, according to ATCs and pilots. Flight movements are expected to swell to more than 500 daily, they said. The country’s domestic aviation industry has received 10 new aircraft this year, but there is no space to park them.

At the same time, tourist arrivals to Nepal jumped 41.50 percent to 460,237 individuals in the first half of 2017, raising expectations that the total figure will hit the 1-million mark by the end of the year.

The peak tourist season does not begin until September, and tourism entrepreneurs are optimistic that arrivals will reach 1 million by year-end.

Hotel Association Nepal has said that the outlook for the upcoming tourist season was positive with most luxury hotels reporting 85-90 percent advance bookings as of mid-August.

Lalit Bikram Shah, former regional director of Bangkok-based Icao Asia and Pacific office, said that TIA capacity had reached a critical stage and that this should not be taken lightly.

“Obviously, Nepal’s aviation sector has seen a dramatic growth, but if the growth is not properly managed, it kills growth. It’s time to assess the risk and some decisions need to be taken immediately,” he said.

Shah added there were many examples of countries that have capped growth to ensure safety. “The decision is not going to be popular, but ultimately it will enhance safety.” However, the concerned authorities do not want to take action, and the aviation sector has been left at the mercy of god, he added. “We should realize that a mistake made in a second can damage the industry’s image for a decade.”

An increase in aircraft movements has also increased the workload of ATCs. “We have been doing extra work due to a shortage of trained manpower. Many ATCs have been forced to miss training programmes because of their hectic schedule and work load,” said an ATC.

Overworked and stressed conditions can lead to mistakes. “Despite this, our ATCs are providing the highest level of safety and doing their job as best as they can.”

Published: 19-08-2017 08:41

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