Pokhara airport opening delayed again to DecemberThe completion deadline has been extended as calibration flights and testing of communication and navigation equipment are yet to be done.
Nepal's third international airport taking shape in Pokhara will open for business only at the end of the year due to delays in conducting flight and equipment tests, officials said.
The completion deadline has been extended for a second time by six months as calibration flights and testing of communication and navigation equipment are yet to be done.
“The project has been given an extension. The new deadline for the completion of the project is December 31,” said Bikram Gautam, coordinator of Operation Readiness and Airport Transport under the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
“In terms of physical progress, the project has completed 98 percent of the work,” said Gautam. “Some tasks related to fencing and equipment installation remain unfinished.”
The government had first pushed back the original deadline of July 10, 2021 by one year to July 10, 2022 due to Covid-19 disruptions, which stalled the procurement of materials and prevented workers from getting to the construction site.
China CAMC Engineering won the construction contract for the project in May 2014, and work started in July 2017. The $215.96 million Chinese-funded scheme had been racing ahead of schedule and was in line to open six months before the planned date of July 10, 2021. But the coronavirus threw a spanner in the works.
Officials say that the second extension was sought as the project failed to conduct the flight inspections of the new facility due to delays in the approval of the supplementary environmental impact assessment (EIA) report.
All new airports have to undergo flight inspection, including tryouts of all infrastructure before they can enter service. These inspections are done in flight by using flight inspection aircraft to analyse and assess the performance and efficiency of the aids to ensure the safety of aircraft that rely on them for navigation and landing guidance.
Before the flight inspection can be conducted, a hill on the eastern side of the airport needs to be chopped down as it poses an approach hazard.
The 817-metre-high Ritthepani Hill forms an obstruction in the path of aircraft, and the project needs to lop off the tops of two hills by 40 and 12 metres respectively.
Around 90,000 tonnes of soil and stones will have to be removed while flattening the hilltops, according to the supplementary EIA.
A 2-hectare forest covers the hill which lies across the Bijayapur River, 1.35 km from the eastern end of the runway. According to project officials, 600 trees need to be felled.
“The Ministry of Forests and Environment approved the supplementary EIA three weeks ago,” said Jagannath Niroula, spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
“Discussions are being conducted to fast-track the process by reducing the tender time,” he said.
There are also concerns about delayed relocation of the Bacche Baduwa landfill site located close to the new airport. As the landfill site attracts birds of prey such as vultures, kites and eagles, it poses a major threat to aircraft.
The landfill site lies 1.5 km from the airport on the banks of the Seti River.
According to Gautam, they have been discussing the relocation of the landfill site with the local government too. “We are hopeful of a breakthrough within a few days.”
In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi handed over the symbolic key of the country’s third international airport to Nepal before its construction was completed. It was a gesture that the Chinese-funded airport would be ready for operations before July 10, the extended deadline given to the project contractor.
Some officials have expressed doubts whether the new airport will be able to get enough airlines to use it.
They say that it may fare worse than Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa, which has been able to attract only one foreign airline since it opened in May.
The spanking new infrastructure is open 24 hours a day but handles only three international flights a week. Officials at the civil aviation body say losses at the new airport have been piling up.
Even the audit report of the Office of the Auditor General unveiled on Wednesday pointed out that due to lack of “technical preparation for the commercial operation of the new airport, it looks like Pokhara international airport will not come into operation immediately, even after the construction is completed”.
The report also said that the new facility would make the civil aviation body incur financial losses.
On March 21, 2016, Nepal signed a 1.37 billion yuan ($215.96 million) loan agreement with the Export-Import Bank of China to build the airport in Pokhara. As per the pact, 25 percent of the loan will be interest-free. The interest on the rest of the loan has been fixed at 2 percent per annum.
The loan repayment period has been fixed at 20 years, including a grace period of seven years when no interest will be charged.
The Ministry of Finance, which signed the credit agreement with the Chinese bank, has agreed to provide the loan to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal at 5 percent interest per annum. On June 5, 2016, the Finance Ministry and the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal signed the loan agreement.
The government will bear any foreign exchange risk that may arise from fluctuations in the exchange rates.
The airport is being built under the engineering procurement and construction model. Under this model, a single contractor takes responsibility for all components like design, engineering, construction and procurement. The contract binds the contractor to deliver the project at the stipulated time and predetermined price regardless of any possible cost overruns.
The then prime minister KP Sharma Oli had laid the foundation stone of the project, which will serve as the gateway to the Annapurna region, celebrated as the world's most popular trekking trail, in April 2016. Construction work started in July 2017.
The selection of the construction site, detailed engineering work and the master plan of Pokhara International Airport was initially prepared in 1971 by DIWI, a German consulting engineering firm.
This work was performed by the erstwhile Department of Civil Aviation with an Asian Development Bank loan under the Airport Development Project in Nepal.
The government had acquired 3,106 ropanis of land to build the facility in 1975.
In 1988, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) conducted a review of the new Pokhara Airport Master Plan prepared by DIWI.
Due to geographical difficulties, the new airport can handle aircraft like the Boeing 757-200 with a maximum take-off weight of slightly over 100 tonnes. The Airbus A320-200 and similar types of aircraft can operate from this airport with a load penalty, according to reports.
The international terminal has a floor area of 10,000 square metres and the domestic terminal floor area is 4,000 square metres
The runway of Pokhara International Airport is 45 metres wide and 2,500 metres long, and has an east-west orientation. A 1,200-metre-long and 23-metre-wide taxiway connects the runway with the parking bays, hangars and terminals.