Maybe you read the story about the Turkish plane that crash-landed on March 4 in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), skidding off the runway and plowing its nose into the rain-soaked grass.
Fortunately, no one was injured. Unfortunately, Nepal didn’t know quite what to do about the Airbus 330 stuck on the single runway of its sole international airport.
As they say in Nepal, “We start digging the well when we see the fire.”
So let’s review. The airport was closed. There was no heavy equipment to move the disabled Airbus 330 off the runway. And international flights were canceled for four days, stranding an estimated 80,000 passengers.
The economic impact will be felt at many levels. Most visible is the damage to Nepal’s image. The crisis also shed light on mismanagement at TIA, the lack of preparedness to cope with disasters and a limited ability to communicate with the vast number of people affected.
Digital media was in some ways the most effective source of news. Twitter provided real-time information, including a blow-by-blow update on every effort (often ending in failure) to move the plane. But Twitter could not provide stranded passengers with news about what to do while the airport remained closed.
The hardest hit were the tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers who had to bunk on airport floors, worried about losing the menial jobs in countries like Qatar and Malaysia for which they had paid large amounts of money to loan sharks.
They weren’t the only unhappy customers. At one point 2,000 stranded and angry Chinese passengers demonstrated in front of the airport demanding to be returned home. The Nepali Times’ sardonic “Backside Column” humorously painted the situation in a pro-tourism light: “Closing the airport for four days was a brilliant move. It improves the Nepal brand by allowing the country to play hard-to-get. It adds an additional sense of mystique and exoticism, excitement and unpredictability to a Himalayan horriday.”
An Indian Airforce C-130J Hercules capable of landing on shorter runways brought in a repair kit for the crashed plane and technicians — who raised the plane nose on inflatable tubes and rested it on a flatbed tow truck. Even when the airport reopened on Saturday evening, the chaos continued. TIA declared the airport open 24 hours a day to deal with the backlog of canceled flights. Airlines doubled and tripled their scheduled flights and planes soon were stacked up, circling for hours above Chitwan National Park, on the Indian border directly south of Kathmandu — a national gem that is the home of endangered tigers and rhinos.
Despite all the problems, airport security continues to work well. At about 6:50 a.m. Wednesday, police in the departure area arrested a 30-year-old Turkish woman about to board Turkish Airlines for Istanbul. She had hashish hidden in a clay statue.
The government is beginning the usual investigation into what went wrong, why and how to avoid a repetition, forming a panel with instructions to complete its investigation within 90 days. The panel members, none of whom has an aviation background, had already interviewed the pilots and air traffic controllers when they realized that Nepal did not have a procedure manual for an international investigation. “We will prepare a procedure manual soon,” vaguely assured Joint Secretary Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane.
In Kathmandu, interested observers are waiting to see whether TIA will again take an approach that it used in 2007 to fix a technical problem with a Nepal Airlines Boeing 757. At that time, airline officials sacrificed two goats in front of the aircraft to appease Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god, and then declared the aircraft was ready to resume flying.
Since TIA reopened, Turkish Airlines, using the same flight number as the crashed plane, TK726, has been landing more or less on time. But at least one of the original passengers has second thoughts about getting back on. Ted Riccardi, a retired Columbia University professor and Nepal scholar who has been visiting the country since 1965, describes a crash landing with the nose bouncing up and slamming down several times before the plane came to a violent stop. For almost 10 minutes the pilot said nothing, and the crew did not open the emergency exits.
Riccardi can only walk short distances and needs a wheelchair. He was carried down a ladder and all the way to the terminal on the back of a Nepali emergency worker.
“I am going back to New York by bus,” he assured me.