Plan to build airfield in Kavre likely to be okayed

- Post Report, Kathmandu

May 2, 2018-

The Tourism Ministry is likely to give the go-ahead to build a domestic airfield in Kavre, reviving a plan which has been dropped by four successive governments in the past seven years.

On Tuesday, a team led by Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari visited two potential construction sites for the short takeoff and landing (STOL) airport: Nagidanda and Thulichour. The two places lie around 20 km and 35 km respectively in the southeast of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA). The proposed sites are located at an elevation of 1,800 metres above sea level.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (Caan), the STOL airfield is necessary to serve the fast rising domestic traffic, particularly on the Kathmandu-Lukla sector, the gateway to Everest.

“A team of experts will make a comparative analysis of the two potential sites and submit its recommendations,” said Adhikari. “They have been given 15 days to submit the report.” After the report is received, the government will select one of the two sites and begin work to prepare a detailed project report.

Every administration in the last seven years has talked about developing an alternative airport near TIA. The topic surfaces particularly during the tourist seasons, which last from March-May and September-November, when TIA is overwhelmed by 500 flights daily, 75 percent of them domestic flights.

The main reason behind the congestion at TIA during this time is Lukla flights due to the rush of trekkers and mountaineers headed for Everest. 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.

Lukla airport in the Himalaya is the third busiest airport in Nepal after TIA and Pokhara, according to government statistics. The airport, which has a 527-metre runway, is listed among the Most Extreme Airports by the History Channel.

“Obviously, the Lukla factor is the sole reason behind the government’s plan to explore sites for an alternative airport near TIA,” said Sanjiv Gautam, director general of TIA. “If the airport is constructed, at least 20 percent of the aircraft traffic from TIA can be diverted there. We have initiated the plan looking towards the future. TIA is likely to witness a significant growth in air traffic even after two international airports in Bhairahawa and Pokhara come online within the next few years,” he said.

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.

Out of the 84 hectares of land available at Nagidanda, 22 hectares are privately owned. Likewise, in Thulichour, more than 55 percent of the land at the proposed site belongs to private owners.

According to Gautam, Nagidanda is more feasible technically as the landing approach can be made from either end of the runway. Moreover, the hilltop site is usually fog-free.

Moreover, locals of the other potential site, Thulichour, have said they don’t want the government to build an airport there as it would destroy the area’s historical and religious sites including the natural environment.

Why did past governments drop the plan? Experts have raised questions about the financial and technical aspects of the proposed airport. 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.

“It will take at least two years to complete the soil filling works. Add another two years for construction works, and the airport will be ready in five years if there is no disruption.

By this time, Nepal will already have two international airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa where traffic from TIA will be diverted,” said experts.

“And if Minister Adhikari’s statement is taken into account, another full-fledged modern international airport will also be ready in Nijgadh by then. The proposed domestic airport will accommodate only small aircraft like Twin Otters,” the experts said, adding that airlines were bringing bigger aircraft. “It will be a waste of money.”

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: 02-05-2018 08:50

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