Why Nepal keeps adding—and abandoning—airports

Building airports in haste and turning them into pasturelands is not a new phenomenon in Nepal. The country has a history of building airports under political pressure.

Sangam Prasain

Sangam Prasain

The Kathmandu Post


File photo of a plane approaches an under-construction airport in Ilam in this undated photo. PHOTO: THE KATHMANDU POST

November 24, 2023

KATHMANDU – Last week, Tourism Minister Sudan Kirati ordered the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) to undertake a preliminary study of a controversial airport project in Dharan.Controversial because the distance between Dharan and Biratnagar Airport is less than 40 km and the two places are connected by a six-lane road.

Building airports in haste and turning them into pasturelands is not a new phenomenon in Nepal. The country has a history of building airports under political pressure.

Although Nepal’s rules do not allow random construction of airports, politicians appear hell-bent on having more of them, insiders say.

Here is all you need to know why airports are haphazardly built in Nepal and how it drains taxpayer money.

What is the cost of constructing a small domestic airport?

According to an official at the civil aviation body, constructing a small airport with basic facilities would require at least Rs300 million, while an airport with a concrete or blacktopped runway costs Rs500 million.

The annual operations cost of such an airport comes to Rs5 million, and it requires regular repair and maintenance for proper functioning.

For a medium-sized airport that accommodates planes like ATR 72, the cost ranges from Rs4 billion to Rs5 billion.

Small airports are mainly built in the hills and mountainous regions due to inadequate flat lands. These Short Take Off Landing (STOL) airfields can accommodate smaller-size aircraft like 17-seater Twin Otter.

Why do politicians push for airports?

Experts say it’s all about electoral politics. Politicians promise gleaming airports in their constituencies, especially during election campaigns.

As a result, many airports are carved out of a mountain, without any study of whether it is technically or financially feasible, which eventually turns into pastures, aviation experts say.

Politicians push to build the airports but appear indifferent to their steady operation. Nepal currently has 55 domestic airports, excluding three international ones. Among them, 32 are in operation while only seven make an operating profit, according to a CAAN report.

A retired CAAN official told the Post that most airports were built under political pressure, draining taxpayer money.

Which politicians are behind the airports built under pressure?

The list of airports built at the insistence of powerful politicians runs long—Kalikot Airport, Khiji Chandeshwari Airport in Okhaldhunga, Sitleshwora Airport in Lamjung, Simichaur Airport in Gulmi, Sukilumba Airport in Ilam, Argha Bhagwati Airport in Arghakhanchi, Sagarmatha Airport in Udayapur, Kamal Bazaar Airport in Achham, Chalnetaar in Pyuthan, Rampur of Palpa and Gudel of Solukhumbu.

The distance of all these airports with national highways ranges from 1 to 3 hours’ drive and in some districts, there are up to three airports.

Officials the Post spoke to said the Sagarmatha Airport plan was passed under pressure from former minister for foreign affairs Narayan Khadka. The airport in Chalnetaar, Pyuthan was pushed by former home minister and deputy prime minister Bam Dev Gautam.

Similarly, a feasibility study of the airport in Rampur, Palpa was undertaken during the tenure of Khil Raj Regmi, who hails from the district, when he headed the election government in 2014.

Argha Bhagwati Airport in Arghakhanchi was the dream project of former deputy prime minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi.

Former tourism minister Prem Ale laid the foundation stone of Majhgaun Airport in Mahendranagar.

Likewise, Gulmi Airport was pushed by Pradeep Kumar Gyawali in his home district when he was the civil aviation minister in 2006.

After Balewa Airport, another airport has been planned at Arnakot in Baglung.

Former chief minister of Lumbini Province Shankar Pokhrel pushed for another airport in Narayanpur, Dang, even if Tarigaun Airport was already built in the same district.

The list of such profligate projects does not end there. Former communication minister Gokul Baskota lobbied for the airport in Kavre, which is right next door to the capital city.

Haribol Gajurel, former agriculture minister and the current political adviser to the prime minister, lobbied for an airport in Sindhuli, his home district.

Former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba pushed for the feasibility study for an airport in his home district Dadeldhura. Former prime minister KP Sharma Oli did the same for an airport in Tehrathum’s Chuhandanda, his ancestral village.

Why are airports abandoned after construction?

Many airports, for example those in Achham, Doti, Bajura, Bajhang, Rukum, Darchula, Jiri, Rolpa and Kalikot, were lifelines for locals as there were no roads, said Sanjiv Gautam, former CAAN director general.

“It was the government’s social obligation to build such airports in remote areas,” Gautam said. “Now these airports are connected to national highways and have as such become a low priority for the relatively poor locals.”

For example, it costs Rs10,000 to fly to Bajhang now. But one can get there via road with only Rs3,000.

Reliability is another issue as variable weather patterns have turned many airfields into seasonal airports.

Runways of many airports have been blacktopped, but no planes land there.

“The feasibility of airports depends on the income status of particular areas,” Gautam said. “As a result, many airports built in past decades have turned into grazing fields.”

Why is Nepal still on an airport-building spree?

As in past decades, politicians still promise to build airports, pitching them as signs of prosperity. “In the past, the airport was a necessity as there were no roads in many districts,” Gautam said. “Now, building airports has become a flight of fancy.”

Even if new airports are built, private airlines are not too keen to fly there. The carriers look for minimum returns before deciding to operate in remote sectors, Gautam added.

Nepal, with its small land area, has a disproportionately small number of aircraft for domestic operation, considering the number of airports it now has. Gautam said it is not feasible to run most of these airports, both financially and technically.

What does the Aviation Policy 2006 say?

The policy says airports are constructed in view of geographical location, population density, regional balance, tourism promotion, proximity with another airport and potential returns.

Generally, the distance between the proposed airport and the nearest airport must be 20 nautical miles (37.04 km) in mountain and hilly regions and at least 40 nautical miles in the Tarai and inner Tarai areas.

The policy gives priority to hills and mountain areas, where there is still paucity of motorable roads linking with the network of the national highway.

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