Tribhuvan International Airport advances earthquake preparedness

28 September 2018

It has been over three years since the devastating Gorkha Earthquake ripped through central Nepal killing over 9,000 people and injuring more than 22,000.  Since the earthquake, Nepal has worked hard to recover.  The Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu has been no exception.  TIA is Nepal’s one and only international airport, and its staff served as a vital lifeline following the April and May 2015 earthquakes.  During that time, nearly 700 aircraft per day utilized its facilities.  This was nearly twice the amount of aircraft that pass through TIA under normal conditions.  Mr. Chhabi Lal Khanal, TIA Aerodrome Safety Manger, stated, “During the time of earthquake, TIA faced many challenges.  However, we did our best to overcome and rise to the occasion.”

Prior to the 2015 earthquake, TIA prepared an earthquake Disaster Response Plan (DRP) in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and University of British Columbia.  The plan was created in 2012, exercised in 2014, and then implemented during the earthquake in 2015.  Despite having a disaster plan in place that worked, it is a dynamic document that requires constant revision, evaluation, and exercise.  As such, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) and TIA Civil Aviation Office (TIACAO) partnered with USACE, U.S. Air Force, and other entities again in 2018 to revise the plan.  A comprehensive evaluation was performed on the TIA DRP, and new appendices to address cargo management, building evacuation and assembly procedures, and access to Security Restricted Areas were added.  TIACAO also formalized an interagency Slot Committee, which is designed to assist with prioritizing foreign humanitarian aid that will arrive in Kathmandu following an earthquake.  Roles and responsibilities for TIA staff were updated based on lessons-learned, and Nepali Army duties were written into the plan to formalize all of the tremendous support the military provided at TIA following the 2015 earthquake.

This week, TIA exercised the new disaster response plan as part of the Pacific Resilience Disaster Response Exercise & Exchange (DREE).  TIA staff presented the new plan to over 250 exercise participants, and also explained its future master plan so that emergency management stakeholders can understand the changes that will be coming to the aerodrome.  TIA also led a critical infrastructure tour at the airfield so that exercise participants could get a first-hand account of facilities such as the Crash Fire Rescue headquarters, Emergency Control Centre, Humanitarian Staging Area, and Nepal Oil Corporation fuel depot.  Maj Courtland Stanley, U.S. Air Forces Pacific, stated, “This was my first trip to Nepal, and the TIA tour allowed me to quickly get a firsthand account of the airfield’s disaster resiliency.”

The DREE also included a detailed table-top exercise and field training exercise to validate prioritized portions of the revised TIA DRP, increase awareness of the TIA DRP among stakeholders, simulate selected TIA staff actions necessary to respond and recover from an earthquake, and identify best practices and lessons-learned to advance TIA preparedness and DRP effectiveness and accuracy.  Aviation stakeholders were able to work through an exercise scenario that tested understanding of the new plan, and provided real-world response actions facilitated by subject matter experts from the public, private, and military sectors.  For example, TIA performed an evacuation drill of the entire Airlines Operation Building for the first time in many years.  The evacuation included all airlines reporting to designated assembly areas, accountability checks performed, and reports submitted to TIA’s Emergency Control Centre.  TIA firefighters also performed search and rescue, and Kathmandu Medical College and Norvic International Hospital conducted medical triage.  According to Mr. Santanu Sen, Chairman-Airlines Operation Committee of Nepal, “The TIA DRP exercise allowed us a great opportunity to practice evacuation and assembly of the building.  It was a real test to see if all entities could follow a standard practice and support each other in accountability and reporting. It is essential that we continue to exercise the disaster response plan on an annual basis to advance our collective preparation.”

The DREE concluded with an after-action review of all exercise questions, and an opportunity to advance the TIA DRP in the future.  Mr. Raj Kumar Chhetri, TIACAO General Manager stated, “The TIA DRP exercise was a great success.  We identified best practices, as well as areas for improvement.  We must continue to strive to be prepared for to ensure TIA is always ready to respond.”

USACE has actively been engaged with TIA and other components of the Nepal government for nearly ten years now.  USACE has worked with the Nepal government to perform critical infrastructure assessments, build infrastructure such as wells and emergency facilities, and help prepare disaster response plans.  USACE was on the ground during the 2015 earthquake helping respond, and USACE plans to continue to help Nepal in the future.