When Nepal’s Minister of Civil Aviation Tourism and Culture Prem Ale took an entourage of nearly 300 passengers on a proving flight to the new Gautam Buddha International Airport on 28 April he exposed the airport’s many shortcomings.
The Airbus 330-234 on an ‘operational performance test flight’ carried a full load of passengers on a joy ride. After taking off from Kathmandu, the aircraft made a low pass over the runway at Bhairawa, made a turn and landed from the west on runway 10.
However, as it reached the other end of the runway it could not backtrack because there was no turnaround bay at the threshold. After much confusion and blame-throwing at the tower, a tow truck was finally sent to push the plane around so it could taxi to the apron on its own power.
Although the end of runway 10 has a turnaround bay, 28 does not which makes this airport unusable for wide-bodies, and aviation experts say this is a major design flaw and planning oversight.
The much-delayed $70 million Gautam Buddha International Airport serving Lumbini is to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on Buddha’s birthday on 16 May with the arrival of a Jazeera Airways flight from Kuwait City.
The same day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also inaugurating the Kushinagar International Airport 75km away, and then flying by helicopter directly to Lumbini to meet Deuba and inaugurate a meditation centre and a monastic area.
Lumbini in present-day Nepal is where the Buddha was born 2,645 years ago, while Kushinagar in India is where he is said to have attained parinirvana at age 80. There are some misgivings in Nepal that Modi is deliberately bypassing Gautam Buddha International Airport.
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Located only 5.7km from the Indian border, Nepal does not have rights for descent clearance and departure procedures over Indian air space. The Indian Air Force has an airbase only 100km away in Gorakhpur, and New Delhi has also been reluctant to provide two-way traffic on air routes to Nepal from the west, forcing international flights arriving in Bhairawa to make expensive detours via the overcrowded Simara air corridor.
These limitations also apply for Pokhara’s new international airport, scheduled for opening in January 2023, and this means the two new airports will be limited in reducing the congestion at Kathmandu airport which has already reached saturation.
Bhairawa’s new terminal can only process 2 million passengers a year — too small for it to be a viable alternative international airport to Kathmandu. This means a proposed new $60 million Terminal 2 is needed even before Terminal 1 is officially inaugurated on Monday.
The new airport does increase capacity for domestic flights and its 3,000m runway will allow it to serve as an alternate for flights diverted from Kathmandu due to poor visibility. The old runway has been converted into a parallel taxiway.