Air route pledge old wine in new bottle, experts sayIndia had approved air entry route over Mahendranagar for low-level flights in 2018. Thursday’s is mere reiteration.
India has agreed to allow inbound flights to use the L626 route that enters Nepal from the west over Mahendranagar, but only for aircraft flying at an altitude of 15,000 to 24,000 ft, which experts say is too low for jets.
According to officials, the southern neighbour had already approved this air entry route in 2018 for low-level flights, and further examinations were slated to be made by September the same year.
So the assurance given on Thursday during Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal's visit to India is only a reiteration of what was agreed five years ago, they say.
“We discussed an additional air entry route. Nepal welcomes India's positive indication of air entry routes for bilateral flights. It is operationally feasible for ATR-type aircraft,” Dahal told a press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi.
The prime minister indicated that he was positive India would consider opening air entry points to facilitate international flights, particularly those coming over western Nepal to the two new international airports in Bhairahawa and Pokhara.
“We request the approval of a high-altitude additional air entry route from Mahendranagar at an early date,” Dahal told the press conference.
Nepali experts are unhappy and say India lied to Nepal.
“India had already approved this route. It is not operationally feasible for jets to fly so low,” said Sanjiv Gautam, former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. “It is only good for Buddha Air if it wishes to serve New Delhi, not other airlines.”
He says flying below 28,000 ft is not feasible because of the operational cost. The thinner air at high altitudes offers less resistance, allowing planes to burn less fuel. “Thus, it is more efficient to fly at high altitudes,” said Gautam.
“The meeting between the two prime ministers, a conference at the highest level, was a lost opportunity for Nepal as it did not yield the outcome expected for more than a decade,”
But there was one breakthrough, he said.
Prime Minister Dahal said that India had agreed to a “near-border operation” agreement.
This means that in the event of a weather problem, aircraft can encroach on each other's airspace if an airport is close by. Two bordering countries normally sign such near-border operation agreements for their convenience.
According to Gautam, it will allow aircraft to use Indian airspace while landing at and taking off from Bhairahawa airport, besides making the instrument landing system (ILS) there operational, which currently is not workable.
The ILS is a precision runway approach aid which provides pilots with both vertical and horizontal guidance during the landing approach.
“We appreciate India's approval for near-border flight operations at Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa,” the prime minister said. “We would like to have flights from Nepal's newly built international airports to various cities in India.”
But there is a geopolitical factor. “If the matter cannot be sorted out by the prime ministers of the two countries, forget about the routes. India will not give them to Nepal,” said a retired air traffic controller who wished not to be named.
Some officials say that these two airports have become victims of geopolitics as Pokhara airport was built with Chinese money and Bhairahawa airport was built by a Chinese firm.
India has been withholding landing permits for Himalaya Airlines to fly to New Delhi since 2015 as it is owned by a Chinese company.
“It’s clear that there is a geopolitical issue here. India is also clear that it will not buy Nepal’s electricity if a hydro project in Nepal has a Chinese component. The airport’s a similar case,” said insiders.
This was clearly evident in May last year when visiting Indian Prime Minister Modi overflew the new international airport in Bhairahawa as it was being inaugurated and landed in Lumbini.
“The possibility of getting the route is slim if we look at all these geopolitical developments,” another former chief of the aviation authority told the Post before Prime Minister Dahal left for New Delhi.
Another official at the Tourism Ministry told the Post that India refused to give operating authorisation to Buddha Air to fly to Lucknow from Pokhara saying it was a “diplomatic issue”.
Responding to questions from journalists in New Delhi, Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra said air connectivity between India and Nepal had come up for discussion.
“There are many elements to it. There are elements to connect different cities of Nepal with different cities in India through different air routes. The specific issues of air connectivity between the two countries are a positive frame of reference. And in that frame, the technical experts will now sit down and look at each of the proposals which are there on the table, and will proceed forward to make appropriate decisions.”
He added, “These are questions which require extensive technical examinations…at some point, the airspace is under the domains which are commanded by the air force. There are several other elements which are very important for technical experts to examine.”
According to Gautam, the former chief of Nepal’s civil aviation body, as per the Chicago Convention Article 1, India has an exclusive sovereign right to deny airspace, but it should provide a substantial reason not to grant the freedom of airspace rights.
Nepal has been prodding India for additional entry routes since 2009. The airspace agenda was endorsed during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Nepal in August 2014.
A joint communiqué issued by the two countries at the end of the visit stated, “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, the prime ministers of the two countries directed their authorities concerned to meet in the next six months to resolve the issue. Based on this instruction, Nepal and India agreed to make the L626 route two-way in 2016.
In February 2017, the two countries decided to form a joint technical team and initiate discussions on the opening of three air routes.
Until April 2018, India was positive about opening air access from the west after a technical team was formed to sort out safety issues.
“Then it abruptly became unforthcoming,” said one former air route expert from the civil aviation body.
Nepal’s relations with India soured after it refused to be an observer at a joint military exercise of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation countries in Pune in September 2018 after initially having promised to participate.
At that time, India had expressed displeasure at Nepal’s withdrawal. The Indian defence establishment was especially angry.
Nepal then participated in the second Nepal-China joint military exercise called Sagarmatha Friendship-2 held in China’s Sichuan Province the same year.
Things, including air route development, became even more complicated.
“After that, the safety assessment of the route stopped,” said the route expert.
Nepal has been pushing the agenda of expanding cross-border air routes as there is only a single entry point in Simara for most aircraft flying into 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.
Two other entry points over Mechi and Tumlingtar (NONIM, to the east of Everest) have been designated for planes coming from Bhutan and Lhasa, respectively. But the entry point in Simara is used by the majority of aircraft flying into Nepal and is, therefore, congested most of the time.
The two international airports in Bhairahawa and Pokhara on which Nepal spent Rs60 billion are said to be technically unfeasible without entry routes from the west.
For example, if a Bhairahawa-bound international flight approaching from the west is not allowed to use the airspace over Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj or Mahendranagar, it has to make a 300-km detour and enter Nepali airspace over Simara, according to Tourism Ministry documents.
This roundabout route to Gautam Buddha International Airport will raise the operating cost of airlines and make flights costlier, experts say.
International flights to Pokhara will face the same problem. Ministry 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.