Ratish Chandra Lal Suman is the general manager of Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), Nepal’s only
international terminal. TIA handles 27 international airlines and 13 domestic carriers and has long been criticised for
being congested. He spoke to Terence Lee of THT Perspectives about efforts and ongoing projects to upgrade and improve service delivery. Excerpts:
How do you see your role as the GM of TIA with NTY-2011 and expected increase in air arrivals?
We already have half a million passengers arriving through the TIA and we are looking at increasing this
by 200,000 more passengers.
To achieve this, we will have to increase operations. It means we need 2,000 more landings and take offs this year and that is a big target to achieve. TIA is operating from 6:00 am to 12:30 at night. Actually the airport is constructed on a plateau and that makes it impossible to construct parallel runways.
The other problem is that since most aircraft can only land and not take off from the Koteshwor side, it means there is just one runway. There is also just one incoming route from Makwanpur and all international flights have to enter from this route. With such
constraints, we have dedicated our runway to domestic flights from 6:00 am to about 10:30 am then we dedicate it for international flights. We now have nine bays for international carriers. We are also thinking of increasing one more bay.
The only option is to spread our operations. Peak hours are from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. There are possibilities to increase flights after that time and even operate 24 hours, depending on financial factors.
What are the constraints for opening the airport 24 hours?
We need more specialised manpower and that will take some time to train. If we go for overtime, there are two constraints. One is the tough labour laws and the other is worker stress and safety issues. We have to re-plan our manpower and offer higher payment for odd hours. We will also have two kinds of operation hours — peak hours and lean hours. In the lean hour, we will have to offer discounts. But to offer discounts and have higher labour costs makes it unprofitable. Currently, we are studying the situation and looking at how we can meet our breakeven and remain profitable.
How do you plan to deal with easing passenger congestion inside the terminal?
It is true that passengers face congestion at various stages inside the terminal and needs improvement. While entering the terminal, the delay area is at the baggage screening at x-ray machines. That’s because there are just two x-ray machines in operation and others need repair and that is being done. The other area of congestion is the check-in counters that are handled by Nepal Airlines Corporation, who use the Departure Control Service (DCS) which is over 20 years old. We are updating to the latest Common User Terminal Equipment (CUTE) that will enable passenger and baggage check-in via internet in real time.
Passengers will benefit as they can get all information on connecting flights, boarding gate, etcetera and baggage info. Passengers will be able to check-in at any counter and there will be no dedicated airline counter required. The barcode system will make things faster in confirming boarding as well as missing passengers. On the arrival side, the baggage code will be scanned to provide information on whether baggage arrived was lost. This is also in the final stage and will be operational by this year.
Airlines are unhappy with the unprofessional ground handling at TIA. How do you plan to address this?
There are problems and complaints with ground handling. But that is because Nepal Airlines (NA) has a monopoly there. While even International Civil Aviation Authority demands at least two or more companies in competition, this has not been done here. Competition is required to improve quality and lower prices. If ground handling charges are lower, the users will increase. Right now
private charters are forced to use NA services and they are not happy. Competition will increase efficiency and benefit the passengers. NA itself, politicians and the Nepali public must understand this concept and accept competition otherwise it is very difficult to bring about change.
Baggage handling systems will be improved and all the conveyor belts will be repaired and in operation by the end of this fiscal year. We also have big plans for automated baggage handling systems at par with other international airports. It’s a big plan and will cost around Rs 550 million.
What are your other plans to upgrade the airport?
There is a lot that can be done. We have started studying how we can increase our revenue by introducing restaurants, shopping outlets, an airport hotel, golf and other options. Around the world, airports generate 60 per cent of their revenue from such non-aeronautical revenue. In Nepal, it’s different and we depend on aircraft and airlines to increase revenue. We also plan to open the visitors’ deck this month. That will ease the congestion outside the terminal. In our tradition, one person leaving the country is accompanied by 10 people to see him off. Now the general public can see also off their passengers.
Overall there are problems of dirty toilets and lack of amenities that an international airport should have?
The four Ts as I like to call them — toilets, trolleys, telephones and taxis — are the biggest challenge in TIA. I have tried to tackle each of these issues, which are not easy. In the international building, we have tried to maintain the toilets and there has been improvement. The kind of passengers we handle do not know how to use a toilet with sensors. They have damaged most of the sensors. Also, if the city is clean, the airport will be clean. If the city is filthy, the terminal will be filthy. We have identified the problems but to change things will take some time and it is very tough to change things.
We have sufficient trolleys but the problem is that they are not found in the areas where they are needed. We outsourced that task, but the target has not been achieved and we need to improve this service. One option is to increase the trolley collectors, which means increasing costs or to introduce a pay system. Presently, also there is an illegal charge by some trolley collectors.
Third is the telephone. For those carrying their own mobiles, telecom service is not a problem, as Ncell has added towers and Nepal Telecom is in the process of upgrading their service in the airport area. Land line is a challenge. We lose the telephone sets. I have requested the telecom people now to provide phone sets that cannot be taken away.
Taxis are a huge problem. For the last 10 years, the unions and others have been running things the way they want. They now expect some discount in import duty to put in new vehicles. This is a monopoly and a very sensitive issue with unions and politics involved.