Despite being developed at great expense, the new international airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa have remained unused and deserted as airlines show no interest to operate flights from the airports.
Amid much fanfare with high hopes from the tourism industry, then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba inaugurated the Gautam Buddha International Airport (GBIA) in Bhairahawa, Nepal’s second international airport, in May last year. However, 10 months after the opening, the airport remains empty as airlines have shown no interest to operate flights to and from Bhairahawa.
Similarly, the Pokhara Regional International Airport (PRIA) faced a setback just two weeks after its inauguration by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ when a major accident occurred near the airport, resulting in the tragic loss of all 72 people on board a Yeti Airlines aircraft. The incident has further delayed the possibility of international flights from Pokhara.
Despite being touted as game-changers for Nepal’s tourism and connectivity, both airports have seen little business so far. These airports were built at great cost, taking on significant loans, and are now at risk of becoming “white elephants”. Moreover, the construction of these airports is now being called into question, and there are concerns about the viability of such big connectivity projects in the future.
Deserted International Airports
The international airport in Bhairahawa was expected to bring in thousands of tourists to Lumbini, the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists across the world. Government officials were confident that international airlines, particularly from the countries with majority Buddhist populations, would flock to Nepal to operate from GBIA and bring in many tourists to Lumbini.
However, these hopes have been dashed as there are currently no signs of any airlines operating flights from the airport. Jazeera Airways and Himalaya Airlines which initially started operations from GBIA have already ceased their operations within 10 months.
Jazeera was the first international carrier to launch flight operations and commenced flights on May 15, 2022, a day before the airport’s official inauguration. It initially saw a flow of Nepalis, most of whom were migrant workers, and began daily flights on September 16. However, the number of passengers did not meet expectations and the airliner reduced frequencies to three flights from Kuwait City to Kathmandu per week starting from October 17. Similarly, Himalaya Airlines, which began chartered flights to and from GBIA, also stopped flight operations from December 16.
The airport has only served just over 20,000 international passengers in 10 months, primarily migrant workers going from Nepal to Kuwait. PRIA is also in a dire state, as a week after its grand launch on New Year’s, a Yeti Airlines plane crashed near the airport killing all 72 passengers on board. As a result, no airlines have shown interest in flying to PRIA which is yet to host any commercial international flights.
After it was seen that the business prospects of the new international airport is not bright, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) directed Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) to operate one flight from GBIA for every three flights from Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu. However, to CAAN’s dismay, the national flag carrier refused to follow the instruction. In response, the authority canceled two flights of NAC bound for New Delhi in October of last year, which left over 300 passengers stranded at the Kathmandu airport.
CAAN officials deny that they are not forcing the airlines to operate flights from GBIA, but everyone has a responsibility to make Bhairahawa airport a success. “As NAC and CAAN are both under the Ministry of Tourism, it may not always be appropriate to take action against NAC. Instead, they must work according to the government’s plan,” said Jagganath Niraula, Deputy General Director of CAAN.
CAAN also took action against Himalaya Airlines for not operating to and from Bhairahawa and reduced the number of flights for domestic airlines flying to India from TIA from 14 to 10 per week. The aim was to increase the number of flights from GBIA to four per week per airline company.
Despite this setback, CAAN claims that several airlines have expressed their interest to operate flights from GBIA and PRIA. “The recent flight cancellations occurred during the winter season, but we anticipate that in the spring and summer seasons, we will see flights from Korean Air and Wiz Air from our newly-built airports,” said Niraula.
Are GBIA and PRIA economically viable?
GBIA was constructed at a total cost of USD 76.1 million, with around USD 37 million in loans and grants from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and about USD 11 million in loans from the OPEC Fund for International Development. The government funded the remaining amount.
However, despite being in operation, the airport’s income is not enough to sustain regular operation costs, let alone repay the loans. According to Govinda Prasad Dahal, General Manager of Gautam Buddha Airport Office, the airport’s annual income from domestic flights is only up to Rs 350 million, which is just enough to cover the airport’s regular expenses. As per the agreement, the airport has to pay a total of Rs 400 million to the investors annually.
Similarly, PRIA is also heavily indebted, with the government borrowing Rs 28.5 billion, out of which 25 percent has no interest agreement, while two percent interest has to be paid on the remaining 75 percent amount. Nepal has to pay Rs 33 million annually to EXIM Bank only for interest. Starting from March 2024, the government has to pay loan installments, which must be repaid within 13 years.
Despite the current financial difficulties, Niraula believes that with time, both airports will generate good business. “However, collaborative efforts from all sectors are necessary, and the government is working hard towards this goal.”
Air Route is the Major Hurdle
The aviation industry in Nepal has been facing a major setback as airlines are unwilling to fly to and from Pokhara and Bhairahawa airports due to the major hurdle of air routes from India. The lack of an easy, accessible, and convenient route is the major reason behind unsuccessful stories of newly-built international airports in Nepal.
GBIA has already suffered the same fate as foreign airline companies refusing to fly there due to the difficult air route. India’s reluctance to allow aircraft to enter Nepal through Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj and Mahendranagar routes has dealt a massive blow to both GBIA and PRIA.
The Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation and the government authorities have not put much effort into resolving this issue, according to many experts. Currently, India only allows one air route via Simara, to enter planes to Nepal from its airspace, while it allows aircraft to exit through Mahendranagar, Nepalgunj, Bhairahawa, Biratnagar, and Janakpur.
Nepal is lobbying to ensure that India allows both entry and exit through the cities mentioned above, which would help boost the aviation industry in Nepal and promote tourism in the region.
Recently, Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Sudan Kiranti, requested India to provide an additional air route to Nepal. Talking to Indian Ambassador to Nepal Naveen Shreevastav, Minister Kiranti told that the only air route in Nepal through Siraha district is not enough for the increasing number of flights into Nepal, so Nepal should be provided an additional air route to enter the country.
According to Niraula, the government has been in talks with the Indian government to solve the issue at the earliest. “We are in constant talks with the Indian side. Hopefully, the issue would be solved,” he added.
Other Problems Surround
GBIA faces several challenges, particularly during the winter season when foggy weather makes it difficult for planes to operate. Despite the installation of ILF technology that can land aircraft in low visibility conditions, it has not been able to function smoothly due to India not giving permission to implement the system. Additionally, migrant workers face difficulties obtaining labor permits and health check-ups in Bhairahawa, which discourages passengers from visiting the airport for international flights.
The lack of visa centers, labor offices, and health examinations also prevents airline companies from getting enough passengers to operate flights from Bhairahawa to labor destinations in Nepal. Recently, the officials from the Ministry of Tourism, Civil Aviation and Culture, Ministry of Labor, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a meeting in Bhairahawa with the stakeholders to address the issues GBIA is facing. The meeting concluded that all the ministries would collaborate to establish a visa center and labor agreement center in the region.
Meanwhile, PRIA also faces challenges, such as the need to relocate the Bacche Baduwa landfill site near the newly-constructed airport. This landfill site poses a risk of bird strikes to aircraft, which could prevent the airport from operating unless the site is relocated. Recently, a bird strike occurred in a Buddha Air aircraft, highlighting the risks posed by birds in the area. Garbage thrown randomly in the canals and rivers near the airport could increase this risk.
“There are, and will, be problems in operating large connectivity infrastructure. But the government needs to have strong willpower to clear the hurdles. It has been some time since both airports were opened for business. Having said this, it will take some time for flights to come even after the issues are resolved,” said Sanjeev Gautam, former director general of CAAN.