When is a ban not a ban?
Civil Aviation has tried to patch up past mistakes by a blunder in its handling of Kathmandu’s runway fiasco
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he aviation and tourism sector in Nepal has reacted with dismay at the decision on Monday by the civil aviation authorities to ban wide-body flights to and from Kathmandu, saying it would be disastrous for the economy. Tour operators and hotels say they have been inundated with panicked emails from groups and customers with bookings for the autumn season.The head of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) Ritesh Chandra Lal Suman told a press conference on Monday that his agency had written to airline operators not to bring in wide-body aircrafts with more than 250 seats because of the persistent problem with cracks on the only runway at Nepal’s only international airport.
“We have informed the operators of the limitations of the runway,” Suman said, “we have asked them to use smaller aircrafts or reduce the payload on flights.” However, airlines using Kathmandu airport seemed confused about whether this was a complete ban or just a suggestion, from when it will take effect, and for how long. In fact, some airlines said they had never received the letter CAAN claims to have sent them.
“To us it seems that CAAN is trying to get off the hook by passing the buck and appearing to be doing something about the runway,” said one operator on condition of anonymity, “and we haven’t been instructed to stop flying in wide-bodies.”
Of the international airlines operating to Kathmandu, Thai Airways, Korean Air, Dragon Air, and Air Asia regularly bring Boeing 777s, or Airbus 330-300s. Other airlines like Qatar and Etihad fly in 330s in the peak tourist season, most other airlines use Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s.
“We have taken this as a request letter, not yet as a mandatory rule,” said Joy Dewan, local representative for Turkish Airlines which is launching a direct link to Istanbul from 2 September using Airbus 330 aircraft. “Stopping long haul flights completely just when the tourist season is about to start would be terrible. The timing is disastrous.”
The runway at Kathmandu airport was built in 1968, although it has been extended and reinforced after that. The last asphalt overlay was done in 2011 and the contractor appears to have done shoddy work because the surface has developed cracks and peeled off in places along the southern end of the runway. The airport has been closed several times in the past two weeks, forcing planes to burn fuel on long holds while emergency crews repaired the cracks.
Some airline executives say CAAN and the airport management are trying to deflect attention from a CIAA probe on alleged corruption in the 2011 runway repair contract and show that it is taking action. CAAN could also be pre-empting possible legal hassles in case of an incident by issuing an open-ended and vague directive. In fact, Civil Aviation has blamed everything from contractors, monsoon rains, afternoon sun, unstable soil, to landings by heavy jets.
Two representatives of international airlines that Nepali Times spoke to said safety was their primary concern and the runway was indeed in bad shape. A major overhaul of the runway would mean closing down the airport just at the start of the tourist season. There are no other international airports in Nepal and none of them have runways capable of handling large jets.
CAAN is taking the advice of a Spanish contractor, Ayesa Ingenieria, which is said to be inspecting the runway and will be giving a report next month. Faced with a groundswell of criticism CAAN met with airline executives and has now been pursuing an option of getting operators of heavy jets to reduce fuel and cargo loads. One irate travel trade official told Nepali Times: “CAAN should have waited till the Ayesa report comes out, and met with airlines before making that hasty announcement of a ban.”
Said Bharat Kumar Shrestha of the Airlines Operating Committee (AOC) representing international airlines: “All the airlines have already made their bookings and it will be impossible for them to cancel them on wide-body aircrafts without major disruptions.”