Long gone are the days of booking travel on weekly outbound flights.
International aircraft arrivals increased by 8.41 per cent and domestic aircraft arrivals by 19.72 per cent in the first nine months of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008. Currently, 25 international airlines operate 35 flights a day and there are eight domestic airlines and five choppers. Kingfisher and Alpine Air will soon join that fleet and three other foreign airlines hope to follow suit.
Yet there have been no major additions to infrastructure. "Our airport doesn't meet the requirements for an international airport, so it is very difficult to accommodate all the tourists," says Amar Bahadur Shakya of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN).
There is one runway at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), no arrow bridge to connect docked planes directly to the terminal, and seven internal bays- when 23-25 are necessary- for just three wide-body and four narrow-body aircraft. Aggravating the air traffic congestion is the fact that most airlines prefer the 10am-5pm time slot, largely because Nepal's terrain makes flying at night dangerous. Inevitably, there have been flight delays.
Congestion within the airport has also increased. The number of international passengers increased by 9.63 per cent and domestic passengers by 35.15 per cent in the first 10 months of 2009, compared to the year before. Although the airport was designed for only 1000 passengers daily, the actual turnover today is close to 2000. Likewise, the departure lounge was designed for 350 but sees up to 1000 passengers daily. Congestion at the air terminal may even have contributed to the death of a Korean woman, of a heart attack, three weeks ago.
Such problems were anticipated long ago, but officials have been slow to respond. A master plan drafted in 1996 was never executed. But there is more movement now. The airport will operate 24 hours a day, in light of Visit Nepal Year 2010, and offer discounts to airlines that operate outside of the 10am-5pm slot. A Visual Flight Rules system will be installed, along with improved lighting on the central runway, to make night-flying safer.The domestic terminal will be refurbished and an area will be set aside for choppers.
There will also be changes to airport infrastructure to make room for more passengers. TIA's Managing Director Dinesh Prasad Shrestha says, "With assistance from the Asian Development Bank, TIA will be realigning the immigration and hand baggage checking areas to accommodate more passengers waiting to board. The waiting lounge will be expanded as well." It is hoped these projects will be completed within two years.
But a total overhaul of the Air Traffic Management (ATM) system may be necessary further down the line. Most airports around the world use analog technology to enable the surveillance, supervision and navigation of air traffic. However, the volume such technology can handle is nearing saturation point in Nepal, leading to a rise in the risk of accidents. "We must digitise ATM and use satellites, which have a wider, bird's eye view of air traffic, have a much higher saturation point, and could eliminate the mistakes that analog technology causes," says ATM expert Niraj Aryal.
Nepal stands to gain more from such changes than other countries because its geography and weather?- which cause most domestic air crashes- make analog technology unreliable. Though ATM authorities are looking into this possibility, it will require huge investments and careful coordination with foreign governments.
Perhaps we're better off getting the basics right first.