March 17, 2015 Sujeev Shakya

Once Bitten

We Nepalis truly believe in living in the present. Our memories of events fade along with the passage of time. It is perhaps due to the resilient nature of our society, demonstrated aptly by the ability to move on despite a 10-year-long insurgency and an uncertain political environment. So before we forget that a four-day closure of the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) impacted roughly 80,000 people and resulted in the loss of millions of dollars, let us ponder some of its lessons.

Taking to the Air

If a similar event had occured 20 years ago, only a segment of the Nepali people would have been impacted. The flight disruption at TIA for over four days in early March, however, affected a huge number of Nepalis. Most likely, every Nepali knew of someone among their family, friends, or colleagues who were affected by the disruption.

Flying has now become as essential as any other mode of transportation in Nepal. Therefore, when planning to build airports and related infrastructure, we will have to take the aspirations and requirements of millions of Nepalis travelling by air into consideration. We will need more regional airports that will allow Nepalis to connect to international hubs. People in Far-Western Nepal, for instance, may prefer to have a regional airport at Dhangadi, as it would be closer for them to fly to New Delhi in India to take international connections rather than flying all the way to Kathmandu to travel abroad. We need to really re-calibrate our thinking to understand what Nepali people would want in the future as their income levels and aspirations grow.

We have spent too much time discussing politics and in doing so, not kept track of how the economy has moved ahead. The mere four-day closure of the TIA impacted around 80,000 people. The airport handles around 300 take-offs and landings per day, including 70 international flights. This means, it handles around 100,000 movements a year; in 2014, the airport handled close to three million passengers. The Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi handled 40 million people and 300,000 aircraft movements in 2014. In 2006, the Kathmandu Airport handled just over 50,000 flights and 1.6 million passengers.

While we handle nearly one-tenth of Delhi’s traffic volume, our infrastructure and airport is not even close to one-tenth of Delhi’s.  This shows that we have never been thinking of airports in Nepal along the scale of increased movement. If tourism is to increase to three million people by 2025 and twice that number of Nepalis traveling by air, we need airports that will handle 10 to 15 million people per annum. For that, we need to recaliberate our computation, as in the case of telecommunication connection, to the needs of a country of 30 million people who are all flying more than ever before.

Insurance Issues

We have to really get to understand the scale of operations and costs. The Airbus A330—the 300 series owned by Turkish Airlines—is listed at $250 million and the Airbus A320 is listed at $97 million. When we have eight aircraft parked at a time, we are talking about close to $1 billion worth of assets at TIA. However, do we even understand the scale of the zeroes involved? What about insurance issues? What about disaster preparation plans? What if there is a major mishap? Again, it is important to understand the scale of operations we are talking about.

When we have an aircraft worth $250 million, the issue of insurance becomes very important. Who will pay for the damages? Who is to be held responsible for the sad plight of the passengers? Who will be responsible for providing passengers with hotels and transportation? What about all the pieces of luggage that get lost? The numbers are again run into the millions. How do the Government of Nepal and its agencies plan to deal with this? Do we have local competency in understanding global issues on insurance? Do we plan to take help from international firms to deal with these issues?

We have never taken insurance seriously, but as the zeroes on revenues and assets increase, insurance issues will become paramount to covering the losses of assets and profits. It is time for an overhaul in our thinking process and to examine the sort of insurance cover that Nepali airports need.

Rebranding Ourselves

The Turkish aircraft episode has tarnished the image of TIA. Billions of rupees raised from airport taxes do not get invested in upgrading services and serving customers better. The baggage claim area is chaotic as two of the carousels do not function. Many a time, the x-ray machines are not working. Security at TIA makes it feel more like a harassment centre rather than a facilitation centre. The way people working at the airport speak to customers makes one wonder why you go through this after paying one of the highest airfares and fees for airport services. The folks at TIA need to understand that they are providing services to people from who they have taken money. They are not operating a free health camp where the patients do not have to pay anything.

Airport authorities badly need a change of mindset. From thinking of themselves as a government entity providing free services, they need to understand that they are an agency providing service for fees. If those who currently run the airport have limited capacity and competencies, there are many global players that would be more than happy to provide services that would actually benefit the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal in terms of revenue and customer satisfaction.

Every event in life teaches us a lesson. Hope we can take lessons from the #airportjam seriously.

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