Last year, only 354,000 migrant workers flew out of Kathmandu, down from 500,000 in 2015. Already, Air Asia is pulling out its daily widebody Kuala Lumpur flights. Nepal is adding two international airports in the next two years, in Bhairawa and Pokhara, to serve up to 2.5 million passengers annually.
These would reduce the burden on Kathmandu where an expansion plan would allow 6 million passengers a year.
If Kathmandu airport’s traffic is reduced by half, where will the Nijgad Airport find the 60 million passengers it needs to sustain itself? In June, Tourism minister Adhikari told Nepali Times that 90% international passengers landing in and flying out of Nijgad will use it only as a transit: “People from other countries of this region will use it as a transit hub to and from Europe and the US.”
Aviation experts find that preposterous. Transit airports with hub-and-spoke functions are fast becoming obsolete as international aviation moves to point-to-point connectivity with advanced long-range airliners like the Boeing 777-8, the Boeing 787-9 and the Airbus A350ULR, which are able to fly up to 20 hours non-stop.
And there is an issue of air space. Nijgad is 22 km north of the Indian border, which means a lot of coordination for terminal maneuvering will be need coordination with Indian air traffic control for arrivals and departures. Nepal and India are both members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which theoretically obliges Delhi to accommodate Nepal’s needs.
Critics say that given how projects like Melamchi have taken decades to be completed, and how Nepal’s civil aviation authorities cannot even maintain the one runway in Kathmandu, and considering the high level of corruption and lack of transparency in government dealings, such a mega-project would be a disaster for the country.
Instead of allowing Nepal’s economy to take off, they say it may actually tie future generations into a debt trap.
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Airjam, Om Astha Rai