Although Nepal entered the aviation sector in 1949 with the landing of a single-engine aircraft on a landing strip called Gaucharan, Kathmandu, there remains much to be desired as compared to other countries. The aviation sector was monopolised by the national carrier NAC until some three decades ago when private airlines stepped into the sector. With private-sector participation, the scope of aviation expanded widely, resulting in an increase of both passengers and fleets. Passenger movement at the Tribhuvan International Airport was around one million a year before 1992, which grew to 7.2 million a year in 2018. The National Aviation Policy was proclaimed in 1993. It was amended in 1996 and then in 2006. The policy aimed at ensuring safe, reliable, affordable and sustainable air transport with increased participation of the private sector. The policy also aimed at constructing a full-fledged international airport and maximising the use of Nepal’s airspace by connecting Nepal with the international air route network.
At the beginning, private airlines performed well and earned a good income. But they could not sustain the tempo of their performance for long. In fact, air crashes are a fatal blow to the aviation sector. This will tarnish the image of not only the aviation sector but also of the country concerned. What with air crashes and what with other factors such as mismanagement, several private airlines had to be closed. At the time, the regulatory body was unable to attract and retain qualified manpower and the safety factor was often compromised. As Nepal was making headway in the aviation sector, a contretemps cropped up in September 2012 when a Sita Air aeroplane crashed into the bank of the Manohara River, Kathmandu. In December 2013, the European Commission (EU) banned the flights of Nepali aeroplanes in the EU region, citing concerns regarding air safety.
Air crashes occur owing to malfunctioning of aircraft, pilot fatigue, difficult terrain, bad weather or other such factors. Nepal has a history of deadly air crashes: 27 crashes in three decades, the latest being the crash of a Yeti Airlines aeroplane in Pokhara in January 2023. The EU ban has been hampering the aviation sector. Owing to the ban, Nepal has not been able to conduct direct flights to the EU nations. Those travelling to the EU nations have to depend on connecting flights, which is a hassle. When flights are delayed, connecting flights may be missed, which would further inconvenience air passengers. If there were direct flights, the number of tourists visiting Nepal from the EU nations could also increase. Nepal has been trying to have the EU ban lifted for a long time but to no avail.
The European Aviation Safety Agency of the EU conducted a safety audit of Nepal in 2022. The EU was planning to visit the country to conduct the on-site assessment of the country’s aviation safety when an aeroplane of Yeti Airlines crashed in Pokhara in January 2023. And the EU postponed its planned visit to the country. The EU published the Air Safety List in June 2023. The list contained airlines around the world subject to an operating ban or operational restrictions within the EU airspace for not meeting international air safety standards. As many as 20 Nepali airline companies, including Nepal Airlines Corporation, private airline companies and helicopter companies, remain banned.
The continuation of the EC ban may be attributed, inter alia, to the failure of the government to split the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CIAA) into two bodies: one operational (service) and the other regulatory. The EU has been urging Nepal to do so for a long time. In 2022, the UN aviation watchdog International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) formally asked Nepal to split the CAAN. The bills pertaining to this – Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal and Air Service Authority of Nepal Bills - are pending in Parliament. The lobbying with the EU for the lifting of the ban is weaker owing to the non-separation of the CAAN into two bodies. It is reported that the CAAN focuses more on the service part than on the regulatory part. To strengthen the air safety factor, there should be a separate body.
Improved air safety
However, Nepal has improved air safety over time. As per the 2022 audit report of the ICAO, the country has made significant progress in the aviation sector. In the flight safety audit, the world average flight safety rate is 67 per cent and the Asia-Pacific rate is 63 per cent. In contrast, Nepal’s rate stands at 70.1 per cent. The first concern of the government seems to be having the EU ban on Nepali flights in the EU region lifted at the earliest. For this, the bills relating to the separation of the CAAN need to be endorsed as soon as possible. At the same time, airport infrastructure also needs to be upgraded. The Tribhuvan International Airport has been too congested. Either the airport has to be expanded or the domestic terminal has to be relocated. In the past, there was talk of relocating the domestic terminal but no progress has been made yet in this regard.
Meanwhile, the Gautam Buddha International Airport and the Pokhara International Airport have come into operation. But the construction of the Nijgadh Airport has remained stagnant owing to various factors such as environmental factors. Experts are of the opinion that Nijgadh is the best site for incorporating Nepal’s airspace into the international air route network. Nepal is still cut off from the international air route network. The Gautam Buddha and Pokhara International Airports are not full-fledged airports. The Gautam Buddha International Airport has a capacity for handling three million passengers a year, whereas the Pokhara International Airport has a capacity for handling not more than two million passengers a year. So the Nijgadh Airport is essential for the country to make copacetic headway in the aviation sector.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)