Technical testing of Pokhara’s new airport beginsThe civil aviation body plans to open the $216 million facility, Nepal's third international hub after Kathmandu and Bhairahawa, on January 1 next year.
Thai technicians on Monday began testing newly-installed communication and navigation equipment of the new international airport in Pokhara, as the civil aviation body gears to open the airport by January 1 next year.
During the test or calibration flights, a specially equipped calibration aircraft will check the accuracy of the transmitted navigation signals required for safe take-off and landing.
All new airports have to undergo flight inspection, including tryouts of all infrastructure before they can enter service.
These inspections are done while the flight inspection aircraft is airborne 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.
The $216 million facility is located at Chinnedanda, three km east of the existing domestic airport, and will be Nepal's third international hub after Kathmandu and Bhairahawa.
The lake city of Pokhara is the gateway to the Annapurna region in the Himalaya, one of Nepal's most popular trekking destinations.
“The testing started at 10 am on Monday,” said Binesh Munankarmi, chief of the airport project. “It may take a week to complete the test.”
The project has notified the domestic airlines flying into Pokhara valley to rearrange the flight schedule as the test may affect them.
“We are gearing to open the airport by January 1, 2023,” said Munankarmi.
According to him, the air traffic service navigation routes of Pokhara’s new airport have already been published in the Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP) of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
AIP is issued by the civil aviation authority that contains aeronautical information essential to air navigation.
The testing or the calibration flight is being done by the Thai government-owned company Aeronautical Radio of Thailand or Aero Thai.
For the test, the project has flattened the hill on the eastern side of the airport by 15 metres as it poses an approach hazard, said Munankarmi.
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.
“We have so far chopped 15 metres and that will allow us to conduct the flight calibration,” said Munankarmi. “The work to flatten the hills will go on.”
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 project 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.
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.
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.
Around 90,000 tonnes of soil and stones will have to be removed while flattening the hilltops, according to the supplementary EIA.
A two-hectare forest covers the hill across the Bijayapur River, 1.35 km from the eastern end of the runway. According to project officials, 600 trees need to be felled.
There are also concerns about the 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 significant threat to aircraft.
The landfill site lies 1.5 km from the airport on the banks of the Seti River.
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 about 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 pointed out that due to a 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 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 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.