What an airport can tell you about a country’s growing pains

There is an intimacy to landing in Kathmandu.  From the plane window, you can see the wings skim the mountains as the hairpin dirt roads leading to perched villages close in above you. From my neighborhood, earth and sky rumble together with each approaching plane.

Down we go! © Donatella Lorch

Down we go! © Donatella Lorch

When I was 27, fresh from two years of reporting inside Afghanistan, the New York Times assigned me to cover the borough of Queens. To soothe my homesickness for the wind-swept arid mountain ranges I had left behind, every morning I slowed down as I drove past La Guardia airport, rolled down my window, and deeply inhaled the jet fuel. Then planes were about escape. In Kathmandu, 25 years later, it means connection.  I live near the main landing path, and the sound of a plane is both comforting and awe-inspiring. It means that neither the valley’s fog, smog, storms nor its unpredictable wind shear have closed Kathmandu’s airspace. Kathmandu is a pilot-only, visual-only landing, and every time I fly in or out, or listen to a plane overhead, I am reminded that technology is not solely in control but that just one person is leading the way in.

Economists refer to it as ‘connectivity’. A poor country cannot reach middle-income status unless its people can be connected by economic, social and political opportunities within their country and with other economies.  This cannot be done without roads and airports. The challenge is huge in Nepal, South Asia’s poorest nation, a vertical land where roads have to be carved out of steep, unstable cliffs that are prone to landslides and where mountains rise so fast and sheer that radar is not always relevant and planes have very limited options on how to get to an airstrip. Imagine terrain so perpendicular that pilots turn off their ground proximity warning system because the constant computer generated voice warning: “Terrain, terrain, terrain,” is not only obvious but also distracting.

Planes landing at TIA skim Kathmandu rooftops. © Donatella Lorch

Planes landing at TIA skim Kathmandu rooftops. © Donatella Lorch

Nepal has 48 airports, mostly dirt strips precariously balanced on mountain tops or in narrow valleys, but there is only one international runway, Tribhuvan International Airport, an example of the vast complexities surrounding the issue of connectivity that go beyond just being able to land planes. In Nepal, tourism is the second biggest earner of foreign exchange, and with mostly dirt roads and vast numbers of road casualties, planes are critical to enabling tourists to come and continue to fuel growth.

Yet what happens when tourists come faster than the existing infrastructure can accommodate? Set inside the city of Kathmandu, TIA is bursting at the seams. It has only nine bays, but almost 50 daily international arrivals and more than twice that number for national flights. Visas are available on arrival, but the line is long and the unbridled crowded chaos of baggage claim is only enhanced by an enveloping dark penumbra. Mandarin seems to be the most spoken tongue. According to the local papers, vast amounts of cash are also exchanging hands at customs, where several officials, including the acting director, are under investigation.

So close yet so far. © Donatella Lorch

So close yet so far. © Donatella Lorch

Nature is not always cooperative. Flights can stack up for hours circling outside the Kathmandu valley, over Chitwan National Park, a domino effect often started by winter’s morning fog and aggravated by vehicle and generator-induced smog or summer monsoon storms and wind shears. There is one landing strip in dire need of re-tarmacking. Last summer, earth worms infested the runway, attracting nearby birds and closing down the airport for a day.  When I fly in or out, I find myself glued to the FlightRadar24 app, scanning weather and delays. The international airline with most delays appears to be Turkish Air, which has the uncooperative 6:55 a.m. landing slot:  thick fog at that time often brings long landing delays and recently a flight was even rerouted to Bangladesh for the day because of it.  The radar system, only for international approaches, is 25 years old and was installed after two major airplane crashes caused by white-out conditions, but it is struggling to keep up with the rapidly growing traffic. With only a 30-mile radius and blind spots, it is scheduled for a much needed facelift and expansion.

Yet international flights are almost always full, especially the five daily jets coming from five different Chinese cities and the scores of flights from the Middle East and South East Asia—the latter often carrying Nepali migrant workers to and from their host countries. Business must be good as landing rights at TIA are more expensive than Bangkok and on par with Singapore, while refueling charges are extremely high (all fuel comes by truck from India). In addition, pilots need special simulator training for Kathmandu landings. Two airlines, Qatar and Korean Air, are now even using the newest technology, satellite-based GPS systems, that provide the pilots with more information and greater leeway during their landing approach.

As in every other sector in Nepal, there are many improvement plans afoot. The government wants to build two new international airports, and is actively pursuing the Chinese government for soft loans. But airports are also competing with projects such as hydropower plants, expressways to India and China, waste water treatment plants, drinking water for the Kathmandu Valley, and sewage systems for all their cities. The wish list is long, the government cash-strapped, and so far investment is only cautiously moving in.

TIA will be it for the next few years.  That means accommodating the dozens of extra weekly flights scheduled to start soon from China. I don’t see the two security check lines that snake through the length of the departure area getting any shorter.

4 thoughts on “What an airport can tell you about a country’s growing pains

  1. Julian Parker-Burns

    “We don’t fly when there are clouds…the clouds have rocks in them” is a regular statement made for domestic air travel. My favorite scene in the domestic side of TIA is watching the monkies casually working over the tourist’s luggage in search of snacks. Recently Tribuvan made number three on the “World’s Worst Airports of 2014″…reconfirming all of your statements of how an airport mirrors the struggles of the nation. As always, it is a pleasure to see my world so succinctly worded by your illuminating posts. Thanks.

  2. robinlorel

    From Afghanistan to covering the borough of Queens! The sweetener in the morning commute – a whiff of jet fuel! To build a new airport in Kathmandu,sounds very exciting indeed. LaGuardia itself is outdated and the landing fees are relatively high. It may take some time to get off the ground (lol) but there is a need and I hope the airport project will fly. I enjoyed this post – thank you 🙂

  3. Robin Marston

    Donatella, please check out, but I think you will find that Tribhuvan is not a ‘visual only’ airport.
    The two 1994 air disasters involved one (Thai) that indeed was in cloud and ‘holding’ and one ( PIA)where the altimeter was wrongly set and sadly the plane caught the top of the Pulchowki hill on approach.
    Kind Regards, Robin

    1. Donatella Lorch Post author

      Robin, TIA requires a 3000m visibility ceiling for the big international flights. All National flights are visual only. Both the Thai Crash and PIA convinced the GON for the need to install a radar system but it has black holes and is seriously outdated. Only Korean and Qatar have the new satellite GPS system which allows a much lower visibility ceiling for landing.


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