Sangam Prasain, The Kathmandu Post, 30 April 2018
Nepal is once again planning to prod India to commence operation of the proposed cross-border air routes, putting the issue that was in the backburner for nearly five years back into the spotlight.
Nepal had pushed India to formally open the new cross-border air routes via Janakpur, Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj and Mahendranagar during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kathmandu in 2014. The new air routes would facilitate movement of international flights to proposed international airports in Bhairahawa, Pokhara and Nijgadh.
The issue on new air routes is being revisited, as the Indian premier is visiting Nepal again on May 11.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a meeting with concerned stakeholders to discuss agendas that Nepal plans to raise during Modi’s visit. “The air route issue was one of the key agendas raised during Sunday’s meeting,” said Pramod Nepal, under-secretary at the Tourism Ministry, without elaborating.
The airspace agenda was endorsed during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in August 2014. A joint communiqué issued by the two countries at the end of the visit said: “The cross-border direct routes will facilitate flights between regional airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa, and this will save time and money for air travellers and also improve air connectivity between India and Nepal.”
Subsequently, prime ministers of the two countries directed concerned authorities to meet in the next six months to resolve the issue. Based on this instruction, Nepal and India agreed to make Kathmandu-Mahendranagar-Delhi (L626) route bi-directional or two-way in 2016. But it is yet to be implemented.
“There has been no progress on this front in the last five years,” said an official of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (Caan) on condition of anonymity.
Caan’s senior officials said that the Indian side has expressed reservations over opening of the airspace in Bhairahawa and Nepalgunj due to the presence of its defence base in Gorakhpur. The defence base is spread over huge swathes of land, where fighter jet exercises are conducted regularly.
However, they have hinted at opening some sections of the airspace over Nepalgunj.
Nepal has been pushing the agenda of expanding cross-border air routes for the last nine years, as there is only a single entry point in Simara for most of the airlines flying to the country. In contrast, there are seven exit points—Bhairahawa and Mahendranagar in the west and Simara, Biratnagar, Tumlingtar, Kakkarbhitta and Janakpur in the east—for aircraft flying out of Nepal.
Besides Simara, two other entry points over Mechi and Tumlingtar (Nonim which is in the east of Mt Everest) have been specially designated for planes coming from Bhutan and Lhasa, respectively. But the entry point in Simara is used by majority of aircraft flying to Nepal and is therefore congested most of the time.
Revisiting the issue
Nepal has once again raised the issue of opening the new air routes because Gautam Buddha International Airport is likely to come into operation by next year. The airport, however, will not be financially and technically feasible if India does not allow aircraft to enter Nepal from one of the proposed cross-border air routes in Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj or Mahendranagar.
For example, if an international flight headed for Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa from western Nepal or New Delhi is not allowed to use airspaces in Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj or Mahendranagar, it has to fly an extra 300 km in aerial distance before landing at the airport, according to Tourism Ministry documents. This means the aircraft coming from western Nepal will first have to fly to Simara from above Bhairahawa before landing at the airport. Surprisingly, the aircraft flying above Bhairahawa cannot land at the airport located in Bhairahawa because it would be using the Indian airspace at that time and thus has
to go to Simara first. This lengthy process of landing at Gautam Buddha International Airport will raise operating cost of airlines and make flights costly.
The same problem will be faced by another international airport in Pokhara, which is expected to be completed by mid-2021, if the new cross-border air routes do not come into operation soon. The ministry’s documents say that Pokhara-bound international flights from western Nepal will have to cover an additional 185 km in aerial distance if the new cross-border air routes are not opened.
On September 10, 2009, Nepali and Indian aviation authorities revised the air service agreement and signed a technical accord permitting Indian carriers to increase their weekly seat capacity to 30,000 from 6,000 over the two countries’ airspace.
The importance of air routes was realised when the plans of Nepali carriers to expand cross-border flights were thwarted by the absence of adequate entry points. Nepali carrier Buddha Air had to abandon its plan to operate Pokhara-Bhairahawa-Lucknow flights due to the air route problem. It had been allowed to fly from Pokhara to Lucknow; but on the return flight, it had to enter Nepal through the Simara point which made the service economically unviable. The last time Nepal opened additional air routes was on November 19, 2009 when the L626 passing over Dhangadhi was launched. The Indian government approved the L626 route as per the air service agreement signed between the two countries in September the same year.
Some experts have said Nepal has not been able to begin operation of the new air routes because of weak “aviation diplomacy”. The Gautam Buddha International Airport is expected to come into operation within one and a half years and Nepal has not finalised the route, said experts.
“It will take years to carry out the safety assessment of the new routes,” the source said. “The government has not taken the issue seriously.”
Nepal has not raised the air route issue seriously with India since Modi’s visit to Nepal in 2014. As a follow up on the 2014 decision, Nepali officials visited New Delhi in December 2016 to initiate negotiations. But by the time Nepali officials returned to Nepal, public attention had diverted to another issue raised by the Indian side during the meeting. During the meeting, India had asked Nepal if in-flight security officers—popularly known as “air marshals”—travelling on Indian airlines could stay overnight in Kathmandu if there be need. The demand stirred “unnecessary” controversy, with parliamentarians of that time expressing suspicion over India’s intention.
During the meeting, India had also said the issue on new air routes should be discussed more extensively, considering the security issues. Then in February 2017, the two countries decided to form a joint technical team and initiate discussions on opening of three air routes, excluding Bhairahawa due to defence issue.
Subsequently, Caan formed a nine-member technical team under Sudhir Kumar Chaudhary, director of the Flight Operation Department.
However, the meeting of the joint technical team could not take place as India did not fix time and venue. India later confirmed time and venue of the meeting, but by that time the Nepali Election Commission had issued its code of conduct in the run up to the polls, barring officials from travelling abroad.