International flights stopped at Bhairahawa due to lack of 'business'

Published On: February 4, 2023 09:40 AM NPT By: Rekha Bhusal

BUTWAL, Feb 4: For the first time in Nepal's 74-year aviation history, more than half a dozen foreign airlines wanted to fly in Gautam Buddha International Airport at Bhairahawa outside Kathmandu. During the inauguration ceremony of the airport on May 16, officials of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) said that the international airline companies will come to Bhairahawa within a few months. It was said that airlines from 11 countries including Sri Lankan Airlines, Fly Dubai, Thai Smile, Gulf Air, Oman Air, Qatar Airways, Salam Air are interested in flying from Bhairahawa.

The spokesperson of the airport, Subhash Jha, had said at that time that Biz Airways had started the process of making three flights a week for Bhairahawa-Abu Dhabi route from September. But now Biz Airways has backed down citing lack of 'business'. Why are the international airlines that were eager to fly from Bhairahawa suddenly withdrawing? The answer is neither with the authority, nor with the government. Instead, Jazeera Airways, which previously operated international flights three days a week, has also returned to Kathmandu from Bhairahawa. Himalaya Airlines, which has been operating a chartered flight, has also returned to Kathmandu.

International flights have been stopped at this airport for the last one month. Domestic flights have also been reduced due to bad weather. There is almost zero traffic at the international airport. Employees are relaxed. The private sector, which has invested billions, is also disappointed.

The weather is the main reason for the suspension of international flights from Bhairahawa because there is heavy fog in the area around Bhairahawa on some days in December/January. Landing of aircraft is interrupted due to lack of visibility. Jazeera also returned to Kathmandu after the flight had to be diverted due to lack of visibility. But even though the weather has improved in the last few days, Jazeera has not returned. Initially, it was said that it would start flights from Bhairahawa from January 15 and then shifted its schedule to the first week of February.

According to a CAAN official, even though Jazeera is ready to return to Bhairahawa after pressure, regular international flights are not possible from here in such a situation. Jazeera's demand is to facilitate the use of services as per the standards of international airport.

Authorities and airport officials admit that the weather is not the only reason for the suspension of international flights from here. Govinda Dahal, general manager of the airport, says, "One of the reasons for stopping international flights is the weather, but there are other problems besides that, which the government should take the initiative to solve."

According to GBIA sources, the airport has Instrument Landing System (ILS) but the system is not operational because it requires permission from India because of the airport’s close proximity to the neighboring country.

Former officials of the authority also blame the government for the failure of Gautam Buddha International Airport to come into operation. Former Director General of CAAN, Rajkumar Chhetri says, “It is easy to answer that international flights have stopped due to lack of visibility, but the main reason for this is the irresponsibility of the state.” He argues that they did not pay attention to the successful operation.

He said that for the successful operation of the airport, the increase in the number of passengers will be the key. "An international airport can't achieve commercial success only by having three or four flights a week. If there is no  business, the airlines will not come back," said Chhetri. He said that the government should obtain permission from India, make necessary agreements and provide necessary services at the airport and come up with a concrete plan to increase the number of passengers. 

Chhetri says all the previous heads of government, ministers and leaders as well as parliamentarians were quick to demand the construction of Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa. But they have  not shown any interest in the commercial viability of the airport and did not advance any plan.

Another problem with this airport is that India has not provided entry routes. According to the officials, the flights bound for Bhairahawa take about 9-10 minutes more when coming through Simara. Kathmandu is preferred by foreign airlines over Bhairahawa as the longer route increases operating costs.

Chhetri said that the entry route for Bhairahawa and the use of ILS were discussed during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Lumbini last May, but it was the state's weakness that it could not be prioritized. 

"The government should have taken initiatives in these matters from the very stage of the construction of the international airport, but even after it was put into operation, it is a weakness on part of the government that it could not get support from India," Chhetri said.

Similarly, to increase the number of passengers, the general manager of the airport, Dahal, said that Indian citizens who want to take the service of air travel from Bhairahawa should also get the 'No Objection Letter'. 

"If India gives a no objection letter to its citizens, the number of people taking air services from Bhairahawa will increase, but even for that, Nepal should take diplomatic initiatives," Dahal said.

There are other reasons why the airport is not operational. The services that should be available at the international airport such as visa, medical examination, insurance, branches of the main power company have not yet been brought to Bhairahawa. General Manager Dahal says those who go to Kathmandu for insurance, health examination, visa etc do not return to Bhairahawa.

In addition, rumors are that the expansion of these services has been deliberately delayed amid fears that the Gautam Buddha International Airport will affect the business in Kathmandu. Due to the bad condition of the Butwal-Narayanghat road, it is faster and easier for travelers from Nawalparasi East to go to Kathmandu than to come to Bhairahawa.

Rajkumar Chhetri, the former director general of the authority, says, "If such big projects built with billions of loans are made white elephants, it will not take long to wreak havoc on the country's economy." "Government can take forward the work by forming a high-level mechanism on air routes, agreeing to solve technical problems, and requesting India to provide NOC to Indian citizens to increase the number of passengers," Chhetri said.

Former President of Siddharthanagar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Bhairahawa Ram Kumar Sharma says that in order to solve the current problems, the state should pay attention to creating an environment for international airlines to come. "Why is there a delay in the extension of essential services such as insurance, visa, health check-up, and labor that the state can provide?" asked Sharma. President of Siddharth Hotel Association, Chandra Prakash Shrestha said that for the commercial success of the airport, the development and expansion plans of other areas should also be carried forward in an integrated way.

He emphasized that programs and plans aimed at tourism should be introduced to prevent this airport from turning into a transit for the youth of the country to migrate abroad. He said that plans should be made for the development and expansion of Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, and other tourist areas, which are close to the airport, in collaboration with the government and the private sector. He said that Lumbini can be directly connected with Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Mongolia, Vietnam and China.

100 billion rupees at risk in the private sector

About a decade ago, when the plan to upgrade Bhairahawa airport to international level was introduced, the private sector here was very excited. After the international airport was built at Bhairahawa, which is the gateway to Buddha's birthplace, Lumbini, the tourism sector was expected to boom. It was hoped that the establishment of direct air links with Lumbini, the region of international peace, would bring a boom in the tourism sector. In that hope, the private sector here invested billions in Bhairahawa, Butwal, Lumbini and surrounding areas. From small to big and star hotels were opened. Bishnu Sharma, former president of Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents (NATTA) Lumbini Province, said that keeping the airport in mind, the private sector has invested more than Rs 100 billion.

This airport, operated as a project of national pride, was targeted to serve two million passengers annually. In the beginning, the target of 10 flights per day was taken, and it was planned to increase it to 60 international flights per day by the year 2033. But due to the short-sightedness of the government, doubts have arisen about the commercial success of the airport.

The foundation stone of the Gautam Buddha International Airport was laid by the then Prime Minister late Sushil Koirala on January 15, 2015. The International Airport was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on May 16, 2022. 

The GBIA, which has the same take-off and landing capacity as that of Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, has the capacity to park five aircraft, including four narrow-body and one wide-body aircraft. The runway of the airport is 3 thousand meters. So far, 154 international flights have been operated from this airport. Via those flights, 13,593 passengers arrived and 18,025 people left.

In order to attract international aviation companies, a 100 percent discount has been arranged for the first year on landing fees, aircraft fees, communication and aviation service fees and security check fees. There is a 50 percent discount on ground handling. But despite the discount facility, this airport is unable to attract international insurance companies.

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