KATHMANDU: Despite a significant increase in the number of passengers and aircraft movement, Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) — the country’s sole international airport — is at the centre of criticism for its dismal state of infrastructure and services. Although tourist
arrivals have surged by more than 50 per cent in the last five years, the TIA infrastructure has remained stagnant and failed to keep pace.
Blame game Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) attempted to ease airport congestion and enhance quality service by discussing the
inclusion of private firms for ground handling. However, this move could not even take off, as it would affect the sustainability of Nepal
Airlines Corporation (NAC). “We were forced to drop discussions of introducing private players for ground handling after taking into account
the bleak scenario of NAC,” says CAAN Director General Tri Ratna Manandhar. According to him, complaints of NAC’s ground support
service are on the rise, along with cases of thefts and tampered or missing luggage. Manandhar adds, “Enjoying a monopoly over ground
handling without improving service and disagreeing to compete with the private sector will not only make the national carrier stagnant but also more vulnerable.”
On the other hand, NAC refuses to give up its lucrative source, stating that CAAN cannot call for any tender, as its commercial agreement for ground handling is valid till February 9, 2014. “Instead of introducing another private firm, CAAN should concentrate on improving TIA
infrastructure,” says Ganesh Thakur, deputy managing director of NAC, adding that NAC is ready to enter into competition with private firms through global tender only after the contract ends. As per Thakur, it is the poor, outdated infrastructure and ineffective management of TIA which has created hassles for ground handling. He adds, “Technically, we are sound and capable of parking nine aircraft and four wide body aircraft.” NAC has been providing ground handling services to all international airlines, except Thai Airways and Indian
Airlines. It earns more than Rs two billion annually through ground handling service, out of which, TIA is entitled to 10 per cent royalty.
Meanwhile, airline operators complain of poor services and believe that the involvement and influence of NAC employees, unions, top brass and politics involved in the aviation sector has obstructed progress. “Airline operators are paying through their noses, but the service we are getting in return is unsatisfactory,” says Bhola Bickram Thapa, GSA of Gulf Air. “How can one evaluate the quality of service if there is only one player and no competition?” he questions, adding that it would be commendable if NAC increased its efficiency.
Justifying the expensive ground handling charge, Thakur says, “Though the policy stipulates duty free,
we have to pay heavy custom duty of almost 80 per cent on airport equipment.” However, it is common knowledge that Nepali ground handling charge is one of the most expensive in South Asia.
There has been no dearth of studies conducted to upgrade TIA, but nothing significant has been achieved so far. As per a study by Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2009, the total cost of upgrade was estimated at USD 600 million. The report suggested implementing the TIA project on public-private partnership format. “We can’t do anything except hope that execution of ADB’s master plan will be done some day,” says an airline operator. Similarly, the report prepared by tourism entrepreneur, Jyoti Adhikari and his team titled ‘High Level Study of Internation and Domestic Airports of Nepal’ painted a dark picture of TIA. “TIA has been reduced to a resource centre that is
exploited by all concerned. No one has ever made the slightest effort to improve its image — neither its staff nor the political leaders,” says Adhikari.
The ADB report states that the present passenger terminal building has reached full capacity, is congested and poorly maintained. The aprons for aircraft parking are also congested and need to be upgraded by 2015. However, these projects have not even been initiated
till date, which only reduces the possibilities of TIA trans-forming any time soon. As per the report, TIA needs add-itional investment of approximately Rs 59 billion, and CAAN cannot manage such funding with its revenue of Rs three billion annually as of 2009.
“We have neither been able to develop TIA as a transit hub and nor are we in a condition to extend its physical infra-
structure because of lack of space,” says Yagya Prasad Gautam, secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. Gautam
admits that the scenario at TIA is depressing, adding that cooperation with all stakeholders is important for its up gradation.
Gautam says, “To meet the growing requirements of aviation sector, we need to set up a full-fledged airport equipped with parallel runways.”
The private sector is eager to witness much needed improvments at TIA. According to immediate Past President of Nepal Association of Tour Operators, Basanta Raj Mishra, it is shameful that TIA lacks even basic amenities and facilities. “It’s a natter of embarrassment that TIA doesn’t offer even fundamental services and lacks proper coordination between different units. The absence of trained and well-
qualified staffs at immigration has worsened the issue,” says Mishra, adding that TIA management does not even perform the basic duties it can easily fulfil and which do not require any major effort — such as maintaining clean toilets, disseminating correct inform-ation to passengers and utilising all available services. He further says, “All concerned authorities have visited the world’s top airports. But when it comes to upgrading TIA in terms of comfort and con-venience, they lack common sense.” He opines that as TIA is the first place that greets visitors, they get a bad first impression about the whole nation in the present dismal scenario.