Covid-19 pushes Gautam Buddha International Airport project further behind scheduleA revised completion deadline was set for December but it is likely to take another five-six months at minimum as the contractor is not ready to send technicians amid virus fears, officials say.
Nepal’s much-delayed second international airport project in Bhairahawa has fallen further behind schedule due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to project officials.
With over 90 percent of construction works completed, the Gautam Buddha International Airport project’s second package—installation of communication, navigation and surveillance, air traffic management and meteorological equipment—has been pushed into further uncertainty.
Sources familiar with the matter told the Post that the contractor of the second package has infomed Nepal’s civil aviation authority that “it’s too risky” for them to send their technicians to Nepal at this moment and asked to wait until the virus cases come to zero.
On March 7, the Aeronautical Radio of Thailand (AEROTHAI), the state-owned company of Thailand, had won the tender for the second package of the airport project, at $4.83 million, which it had pledged to complete by 2019.
Nepali officials say that the project may take at least five months to complete—three months for installation and two months for testing and commissioning, flight calibration of navigation and communication systems, together with flight procedure design.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, addressing the nation on the occasion of the Constitution Day on Saturday, had even said that flights would have taken off from the Gautam Buddha International Airport had the Covid-19 pandemic not hit the country.
Located in south central Nepal, the airport will be the gateway to the international pilgrimage destination of Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha. The airport will have a 3,000 metre-long and 45 metre-wide runway. The facility was initially slated to be ready by December 2017.
The project, however, has suffered multiple hurdles, which have pushed the completion deadline several times.
The latest deadline for the project completion was set for December this year, which is now not likely.
“The contractor is unlikely to send its workers to install the equipment anytime soon. They have informed the Nepali authority that the technicians to install the equipment could come only after Nepal records zero cases of coronavirus,” an official at the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal told the Post on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak on the matter. “It’s not possible for Nepal to have zero cases for months.”
Officials familiar with the development said several rounds of discussions have taken place between the contractor and the civil aviation body.
“The contractor is saying that even if it sends its technicians, there must be a guarantee that they are not infected by the virus,” said the official. “No one can guarantee such things.”
According to officials, if the technicians fail to come by the end of this year or early January, it’s highly likely that Pokhara International Airport will come into operation before the Gautam Buddha International Airport.
The Pokhara airport has set a completion deadline of July 10, 2021.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, the airport in Lake City, due to its faster progress, was supposed to be completed six month earlier than its actual target.
“Covid-19 affected the airport project too,” said the official at the civil aviation body. “However, the international airport project in Pohara is on track to achieving its completion deadline.”
Rajan Pokhrel, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, told the Post that they have been requesting the Thai embassy in Nepal to facilitate the process to bring technicians to Nepal as the Bhairahawa project may get significantly delayed.
“We are making efforts,” said Pokhrel. “Nothing concrete has come up so far, though.”
On September 12, the Cabinet had allowed projects to bring technicians from foreign countries, since several projects are in limbo as skilled workers are stuck in different countries due to the lockdown measures imposed by Nepal to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Even after the lockdown was lifted in the third week of July, big and small projects funded by the government or private institutions were allowed to mobilise local workers, but foreign technicians were barred from entering the country, resulting in halting of works at a large number of projects that were close to completion.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal had awarded the first package or civil work component of the Rs6.22 billion Gautam Buddha International Project contract to China’s Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group in November 2013.
Prabesh Adhikari, the chief of the airport project, told the Post in a recent interview that while most of the equipment stuck in different countries due to travel restrictions had arrived at the project site in Bhairahawa, there were challenges in bringing skilled manpower to install the equipment as foreign airlines were still restricted from entering Nepal and a majority of countries.
On August 21, the government decided to resume chartered and regular flights from September 1 only for Nepalis and representatives of diplomatic missions, the United Nations and development partners.
However, it was only on September 14, the government formally allowed the project to bring the foreign technicians via air transport.
According to Pokhrel, despite the government allowing the projects to bring skilled manpower from foreign countries, Nepal is facing a hard time convincing the contractors, as the coronavirus cases have been rising.
“We have also asked the government to facilitate the process,” said Pokhrel.