Nepal's 2nd Int’l Airport Ready for Opening Amid Air Route Issues with India

Published On: March 31, 2022 07:36 AM NPT By: Hari Prasad Shrestha

Due to India’s reluctance to grant air routes, aircraft flying to Gautam Buddha International Airport will have to take a longer route from Simra which might raise the operating costs for airlines and push up ticket prices.

Nepal is ready to open the Gautam Buddha International Airport (GBIA) in Siddarth Nagar (Bhairahawa) near Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, in the southern plains bordering India.

Constructed under the financial support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Rs. 6.22 billion facilities (ICB-1) have been constructed by Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group of China. Aeronautical Radio of Thailand completed a Rs 560 million facilities (ICB-2) of communication, navigation and surveillance/air traffic and other related services, at the airport. This airport has a 3,000-meter-long and 45-meter-wide runway.

Aero Thai conducted calibration flights at the airport by a special aircraft for 10 days. Flight calibration is done to check the navigation system and ensure radar systems are working to ensure an aircraft passes an inspection and its equipment is up to date. 

After successful calibration flights, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal published an Aeronautical Information Regulation and Control (AIRAC) AIP of the airport with all the new flight procedures and aerodrome information on 2022/03/10.

And after receiving ICAO certification, international flights will be officially started on May 16, 2022, from the birthday of Gautam Buddha.

Around 20 to 30 % congestion at the Kathmandu airport would fall off after its full operations and apart from flights from Buddhist majority countries, some flights of Kathmandu to labor destination countries will be also diverted to this airport. Moreover, international flights, which could not land in Kathmandu due to weather and other conditions, and would rather land at airports of India and Bangladesh, alternatively, will be landing at this airport.

Some part of India’s sky might be necessary for landings and take-offs at this airport for some specific flights and a new air space agreement with India seems crucial for Nepal.

In absence of direct air routes, it will be difficult to operate flights to India and will take a longer Simra route to fly from middle east countries to this airport. However, there will be no difficulty operating flights from east Asian countries and China.

For more than a decade, Nepal has been repeatedly requesting India for a review of the airspace agreement with the aim of providing more cross-border entry and exit points through western Nepal for airlines that will be serving the GBIA, Pokhara International Airport and the proposed Second International Airport (SIA) in Nijgadh.

In August 2014, a joint communiqué issued by Nepal and India said, “The cross-border direct routes will facilitate flights between regional airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa, and this will save time and money for air travelers and also improve air connectivity between India and Nepal.”

India’s unwillingness to grant air route to GBIA could be, again despicable for it, like the 2015 border blockade, which prompted Nepal to sign a trade and transit treaty with China, relating to Nepal’s use of Chinese sea and land ports. And now this air route hurdle could possibly, sooner or later, bring Nepal and China closer and encourage use of more northern air routes, and more flights from China to this airport.

Without hostility, air route off-limits to a friendly nation is reputed to be a violation of the freedom of the air convention, formulated as a result of disagreements over the extent of aviation liberalization in the Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944, known as the Chicago Convention. The freedoms of the air are a set of commercial aviation rights granting a country's airlines the privilege to enter and land in another country's airspace.

India’s motive behind limiting this airport, most likely concerned with the construction of the Kushinagar international airport in India, which is 96 km far from GBIA and 44 km from the Gorakhpur airport. India constructed the Kushinagar airport due to difficulties in expansion of the Gorakhpur airport. Kushinagar is also a Buddhist pilgrimage site, where Buddhists believe Gautam Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana after his death.

Aviation experts in Nepal believe that India constructed the Kushinagar airport specially to depreciate GBIA and the reason not to offer an air route to it, was India’s anxiety about high prospects for a spike in numbers of tourists in Lumbini with its worldwide promotion, affecting the Kushinagar airport.

Due to India’s reluctance to grant air routes, aircraft flying to Gautam Buddha International Airport will have to take a longer route from Simra which might raise the operating costs for airlines and push up ticket prices. According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), aircraft flying from New Delhi to Bhairahawa will have to fly an extra 300 km as a result. Nepal's another newly built third international airport in Pokhara will also face high ticket prices for travelers flying from India to this airport.

India, most of the time intends to impose its one-sided interests during any aviation deals with Nepal, whether it is open sky agreement, air space agreement, Indian air Marshal in flights, re-security check of baggage and passengers by Indian authorities in Kathmandu airport etc.

No flights to Indian cities from GBIA mean - it would not only affect Nepali airlines, but also bring misfortune to Indian airlines and travelers, who are interested to visit Lumbini, as previously India refused to grant high altitude flights from Mahendranagar air route and refused to provide slot for Buddha Air at the  Delhi airport for the proposed Nepalgunj-New Delhi flight, which created troubles for Indian pilgrims to visit Mansarovar in China.

As a friendly neighbor, if India thinks positively, it could provide a two-way air route also through Lima - 626 Mahendranagar as well as Gorakhpur - Bhairahawa air route. However, India’s displeasure to offer new air routes sounds illogical, because there are dozens of international airports in India, which are operational both for commercial and military purposes.

Amidst challenges in GBIA, for a couple of years, this may not be in profit. However, the future of this airport appears to be encouraging, because Buddhists from all over the world prefer to visit Lumbini at least once in life. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Government of Nepal have well calculated better business prospectus for this airport. ADB is interested to invest an additional Rs 5 billion to construct another large Terminal Two (T2) at this airport.

Being the second international airport, it has more strategic importance for Nepal rather than evaluate it just on risk-benefit ground. Strategic infrastructures could take longer periods for optimum rate of returns, however, such infrastructures must be built with internal resources or lower rates of external lending.

This is a new international airport and the Nepal Government must make publicity of this airport extensively to attract more international airlines and tourists as well.

At least 10 international airlines are in a wait and see position to operate flights to and from here. As per media reports, Nepal Airlines, Jazeera Airways, Qatar Airways, Sri Lankan Airlines and Smile Thai Airways have shown interest in operating flights to and from here and few countries have already revised bilateral air services agreement with Nepal to operate flights out of Kathmandu-based international airports including 21 flights from China.

In conclusion, it may take time, but the issue of air routes would certainly be sorted out as India has previously agreed to it and Nepal is constantly requesting India for it. Being a poor and a dependent country on India, Nepal should not, and cannot, go against India; but it must apply diplomatic pressure against this air route barricade.

(Shrestha is a former Under-secretary at the Ministry of Finance, Nepal and an expert in UNDP Africa)


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