Kathmandu airport reopens in 2 weeks
Although the government had announced that regular domestic and international flights would open from 17 August, the uptick in coronavirus cases in Nepal and around the world may force the government to revise the decision. There is also uncertainty about frequency of flights and destinations that will be allowed.
With two weeks to go for lifting flight restrictions, seven international airlines have applied for slots from the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), and the number of flights will be determined by the capacity at Kathmandu airport to handle arriving passengers, as well as customer demand.
Although the government allowed hotels, restaurants, trekking and mountaineering groups to open two weeks ago, confusion about inbound flights have forced most operators to put bookings for the autumn season on hold.
As a result, airlines that rely mostly on expatriate Nepalis and tourists are expected to have limited flights, while those that rely on Nepali migrant workers from the Gulf, Malaysia, Korea, and Japan will have higher bookings.
But even here, the government has not yet clarified if Nepali migrant workers leaving on job contracts will be allowed to fly out. So far, 40,000 stranded Nepali workers have flown home since repatriation flights were allowed from 15 June, but none have been allowed to join jobs overseas.
Till this week, Turkish Airlines to and from Istanbul, Air China, and China Southern have asked for only once-a-week flights from Chengdu and Kunming. Budget carriers like Fly Dubai of the UAE, Salaam Air of Oman, and Indigo of India say they want daily flights. However, the COVID-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC) has not yet decided about allowing flights from New Delhi.
“Because there is still two week’s time for flights to start, we expect more airlines to apply for slots,” said CAAN spokesperson Raj Kumar Chhetri. “Since the pandemic situation is still fluid in many countries, the government will decide which airlines will be allowed to bring passengers from which cities.”
However, airline sources say that the real reason more carriers are not yet asking for slots is because of the uncertainties due to the rise in coronavirus cases in Nepal and the region, as well as a lack of clarity from the government itself about the criteria for regular flights.
According to the existing CCMC protocol for inbound flights, all passengers are required to have a PCR negative test 72 hours prior to departure, but even if they have that certificate, Nepali passengers and diplomats will have to stay 14 days in home isolation or 7 days in a hotel in Kathmandu after arrival.
Tourists and returning overseas Nepalis will have to undergo 7 days in hotel isolation and will be allowed to move about only after another PCR negative test. This is ostensibly to make sure that passengers did not get infected en route. However, many Nepali workers have been allowed to board repatriation flights back to Nepal in the past month even without PCR negative tests.
Foreigners will also need valid Nepali visas prior to boarding because visa on arrival has been suspended for now. The contradictions and confusing criteria in the CCMC’s guidelines have frustrated tour operators who had been hoping to open trek and mountaineering bookings for the autumn season after regular flights reopened.
Meanwhile, Nepal Airlines has drawn up a timetable for regular flights to five destinations starting 17 August: Dubai, Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo Narita and Hong Kong. The carrier is still trying to decide about the frequency of flights to these destinations.
The other private Nepali international carrier, Himalaya Airlines had been operating repatriation flights from seven cities in the Gulf and Southeast Asia. After 17 August, it will be doing daily regular flights to Damam and five per week to Doha, Abu Dhabi and Kuala Lumpur, and one flight per week to Chongqing.
Before the lockdown, 30 airlines from 15 countries used to fly in and out of Kathmandu. CAAN says limitations due to health precautions at Kathmandu means Nepal’s only international terminal can only handle 10-15 inbound flights per day.
There is also much uncertainty about when domestic flights will restart because of the surge in cases in the main Tarai cities of Biratnagar, Birganj, Janakpur and Nepalganj, which are considered ‘trunk routes’ for domestic airlines.
However, five months after grounding their planes and suffering great financial losses, domestic carriers like Buddha Air, Yeti Airlines, Shree Airlines, Sita Air and Tara Air are preparing for regular flights in two weeks. CAAN has fixed an upper limit of 48 daily domestic flights keeping in mind physical distancing and other precautions.
Of these, 39 are said to be flights on trunk routes and nine to remote area airfields. Airlines have been given slots according to their pre-pandemic flight volume, which means Buddha Air gets 18 flights a day, while Yeti will conduct 11, and Shree Air will do eight flights. Smaller airlines will get three slots each to mountain airfields. This will only be 15% of pre-COVID traffic volume.
The domestic terminal’s size means that although it can normally take 450 passengers an hour, that volume will have to be reduced by half to maintain physical separation. There is also the possibility that airlines may not even get enough passengers to fill their limited flights because of higher air fares and the fear of contagion during travel.
“Even though CAAN has stipulated the slots, these could change at any moment if local authorities decide to take lockdown measures to prevent a fresh surge of the virus,” cautioned Anil Manandhar of Shree Airlines, citing the rise in cases in Tarai cities.
CAAN says the permission for regular domestic flights has been given for only one week. The flight opening will be reviewed depending on how strictly COVID-19 protocols are followed by airlines, passengers and airport staff, as well as the number of infections.
“We might increase flights depending on how the situation develops in terms of safety measures,” said Yograj Sharma Kandel of the Airline Operators Organisation.