Tribhuvan is Nepal’s only international air portal, and it is in disarray — representing the state of a country wracked by ineptness and inefficiencies caused by political sharing of the spoils.
When the US-Bangla Dash 8 turboprop fell from the sky on Monday afternoon, it snuffed out the lives of Bangladeshi tourists, Nepali students, tour operators and others. The crash highlighted once more Nepal’s poor aviation safety record.
Here was a country trying to get back to normalcy after natural and political upheavals, hoping for a spike in tourist arrivals, and moving to high end tourism to match the country’s natural and cultural assets. But then came the air crash, making the tourism economy vulnerable once more.
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The reality is that while flying STOL aircraft into precarious mountain airstrips can be risky, TIA in itself is not a hazardous airport. Its single north-south runway certainly makes it inefficient for flight handling, but the terrain, approach, altitude and general weather conditions do not present great hazards.
The US-Bangla crash was the first disaster with multiple fatalities within the airport perimeter. The Airbus 330 runway excursion in 2015 closed the airport for three days, but there were no fatalities. Smaller planes have crashed near the airport, but usually due to pilot error or technical malfunctions.
Two wide-bodies crashed within two months of each other in 1992 when they hit terrain outside the Valley in whiteout conditions. Both were ascribed to pilot error (one pilot flying north while thinking he was headed south, the other flying a thousand feet below the prescribed altitude).
The heavy loss of life in those two high profile crashes put Kathmandu on an international list of notorious airports. But since the installation of a radar system after the two crashes of 1992, and its upgrade last month to provide all-Nepal coverage, safety safeguards have improved.
One of the very first tasks of Prime Minister K P Oli’s new government should be to now improve the services at Tribhuvan International Airport.
While we wait for the verdict of the official enquiry in the US-Bangla disaster, certain informed conjectures can be made about what might have transpired based on the tape of the air traffic control (ATC) communication that is available on the net, and the several expert eye witnesses, photos and videos of the plane in its last moments.