Nepali Times
"Airport closed, monkeys on the runway."


. 11 October. A delayed early morning Royal Nepal Airlines flight from New Delhi is one minute from touchdown. Air traffic control sends out a warning: "Caution, cow on the runway. Request your intention?" The pilot is livid. "What am I supposed to do? Get it out of there!"
. 17 October. A Royal Bhutan flight to Paro is at the end of the runway, waiting for takeoff clearance. "Stand-by for takeoff," says the tower. "Four dogs on taxiway three."
. 17 October. A week after its flight to Lhasa hit a bird on takeoff, China Southwest Airlines' flight 407 is on approach. Tower comes on: "Airport closed, monkeys on the runway." CSA 407 holds for 10 minutes before the monkeys are chased back to Pashupati.

What is surprising about these three incidents this week is not that they happened-pilots have stopped being surprised at the diversity of fauna that Kathmandu airport seems capable of throwing up-but that they were happening when the entire tourism industry was going bananas about bird danger.

It now emerges that the near-accident on 29 September that triggered the whole bird strike scare had nothing to do with birds at all. The Royal Nepal Airlines flight RA 409 to Hong Kong had just started its takeoff run when the right engine failed with a big bang. The pilots brought the plane to a halt on the runway. The engine was a write-off, the plane was grounded for 10 days and the airline suffered colossal losses. Engineers were intrigued by the fact that there were no tell-tale signs of a bird strike: no blood, no feathers, beaks or talons embedded in the fan blades. In fact, the inside of the engine nacelle had been ripped open, the titanium alloy fan blades warped and what looked like rivet punctures. Insurance inspectors are now looking for clues about what caused the failure.

To be sure, the bird danger at Kathmandu airport is real. And the reasons for that have little to do with airport management. When an overcrowded, dirty city is encroaching on the airport perimeter, when the whole Valley is a garbage dump, when the entrails and femurs of water buffaloes sacrificed during Dasain litter the runway threshold, there is no point blaming the airport. Where we can blame the airport management is for its inability to prevent higher mammals from entering the perimeter, for allowing trash accumulation that attracts them, for being unable to deal with debris that present hazards of foreign objects being ingested into engines, and for not coping with the expansion of domestic airline traffic.

The equipment is state-of-the-art. All-glass cockpits, fly-by-wire airliners, 50-km radius radar surveillance, but the state-of-the-airport is 19th century: perimeter fences with large gaping holes, shortcuts for humans to cross the runway, uniformed guards with airguns, and a management record that reflects the country's sorry state. An airport that is valued by its rulers more as a smugglers' den, a conduit for contraband than as the mainstay of the economy because it is the only entry point for tourists, indicates wrong priorities right at the top. One disillusioned tourism entrepreneur told us: "You can't make a quick buck chasing dogs off the apron. So how do you expect the airport to get its act together, they have a completely different preoccupation."

One misty morning last week, the airport's two jeeps were busy deploying staff to sweep up earthworms that were erupting out of the ground and slithering along the side of the runways. This is one of those years that earthworms all over Central Nepal have gone crazy-they are emerging from the soil by the trillion. On the hills of the Valley rim, they cascade down the slopes escaping a high water table caused by the prolonged monsoon. Dried by the sun, they die en masse, rotting and decaying along village trails. The airport also has a worm problem, and the raptors have a feeding frenzy. A dozen sweepers and some birdguards will not solve the problem worms. And the long-term bird meance from the city needs a national campaign.

"The airport's bird problem is an extension of the city's urban waste mis-management," says Explore Nepal's Bharat Basnet, who has been spearheading environmental activism in Kathmandu starting with diesel tempos. By coinci-dence, two of the bird-hits last week involved Lauda Air, the Austrian charter airline Basnet is the representative for. "Kathmandu is like an open garbage disposal site that is sure to attract the birds," he tells journalists on a conducted bird-watching tour of the airport this week, showing the danger posed by birds of prey soaring above the runway just as the airport's traffic peak was getting underway. But ironically, while the airport's efforts to scare away the kites seemed to be working somewhat, it was the dogs and monkeys that started creating havoc.
Environmentalists blame dumping of garbage on the Bagmati River on the northern side of the runway. It is true that this is sacrilege, and a serious pollution threat for groundwater through leaching, but activists have been going a bit overboard in blaming the river landfill for the bird hazard. All the three bird strikes this month happened at the southern end of the airport, or on the runway itself.
Eager to be seen doing something, the government, after a meeting held at the Local Development Ministry on 13 October, banned dumping of food waste and animal carcasses and prohibited animal slaughter at Jorpati, Gothatar and Mulpani Village Development Committees.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)