Landing in Kathmandu is only half the story

A passenger alighting from a Nepal Army bus at the holding centre in Kathmandu last week. Photo BIKRAM RAI

Despite assurances that the arrival process at Kathmandu airport has been streamlined with the resumption of flights, passengers continue to complain of disorder and confusion.

After the Covid-10 Crisis Management Committee (CCMC) chaired by Defence Minister Ishwar Pokhrel handed over the management and transport of arriving passengers to the Nepal Army on 16 July, it was expected there would be military discipline. But many have been rudely disappointed.

“I had heard the Army was in charge, and thought things would be smooth, but from the moment we got off the plane, on the bus, at immigration, the baggage claim and holding centers, there was mismanaged frenzy and violation of safety protocols,” said Lekhnath Poudel, an expert on geopolitics and security who arrived last week from London.

Poudel said passengers who were clueless about rules were herded like sheep, with soldiers in camouflage fatigues barking orders, and there was no pretense at distancing in the ramp buses or baggage retrieval area. By the end of it, confused passengers were too tired to observe physical separation, he added.      

With the daily incoming 800 passengers now increased to 1,600 on regular and charter flights, the Nepal Army’s job is to escort passengers from the apron after disembarkation, to the terminal building, and on to holding centres designated by province at various points in Kathmandu Valley. After filling forms there, passengers are allowed to go to two-week home quarantine.   

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However, in practice, things are not that easy. Purshottam Mudbari’s daughter was returning from New York on a Qatar Airways flight last week, but no one had any clue where the Bagmati Province holding centre was.

“I was first sent to a party palace in Sukedhara, and they told me it was actually the Gandaki Province holding centre. Then they sent me to a centre in Basundhara,” he recalls. “We traveled from one place to another and waited. There was no place to sit, nothing.”

Airport records show that there have been 371 chartered flights bringing back more than 70,000 Nepali workers mainly from the Gulf and Malaysia since 16 July. After limited regular flights were allowed on 1 September, 40 flights have flown passengers in and out.

Foreigners are still not allowed to fly to Nepal, unless they are diplomats or aid agency employees. Flights to and from Indian cities have also not been allowed to resume, even though the Indian authorities have reportedly proposed an India-Nepal ‘bubble’ for air travel. Limited domestic flights have been operating for the past two months in India.

According to the CCMC, guidelines are being enforced by the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) and the Nepal Army. All passengers must have an RT PCR negative test report not earlier than 72 hours before departure, mandatorily must fill out an online health form from the CCMC website with a barcode that needs to be presented on arrival.  

However, passengers interviewed at Kathmandu airport last week said they were asked to fill out the same forms again at the holding centre even if they had a printout of the online forms. Since the rules are so arbitrary but strict, there have been reports of airlines are not taking any chances, and refusing passengers with confirmed tickets to board unless proper forms are filled out.

CAAN has not clarified to airlines what forms need to be filled, whether print-outs are necessary or not, or if passengers can show a filled out form on their phones, and also the nature of acceptable RT PCR negative reports required.

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Province-wise holding centres in Kathmandu are actually converted banquet halls, and lack adequate facilities.

It is expensive for airlines if the forms are not accepted on landing in Kathmandu. A Nepal Airlines charter from Japan had one passenger without the required PCR negative test report and all the passengers were sent to hotel quarantine in Kathmandu at the airline’s cost. Six of 227 passengers on a recent Qatar Airways flight from Doha did not have proper RT PCR negative certification. The airline has been required to pay for the two week hotel quarantine of the passengers.

Arriving passengers have also complained about why they have to spend six hours or more after arrival even if they have PCR negative reports. “I just do not understand why we were not allowed to go into self-isolation at home straight from the airport, especially because the holding centres are so mismanaged we could easily get infected there,” said a Nepali student arriving from Europe on a flight last week.,

The travel trade is talking to CAAN and CCMC to streamline this process ahead of 17 October, from which date foreigners and tourists are to be allowed to travel to Nepal. CCMC is said to be considering letting them go into a week-long isolation in hotels in Kathmandu before being allowed  home, or head out to the mountains. 

Mahendra Guragain at the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation says the holding centres are necessary for filling out forms, and passing out SIM cards so they can be contacted if there are Covid-19 symptoms.  He did not explain why that should take six hours, and denied Nepal Army personnel at the airport and holding centres were misbehaving with passengers.

 “There is no reason for them to be rude. We have not got any complaints about the soldiers. They are just being strict because some airlines are bringing passengers without PCR tests,” he said.

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