Kathmandu, Nepal – Commercial flights are considered one of the safest modes of transportation in the world, but not so much in Nepal.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) has recorded at least 68 plane crashes in the country since 1955 – 44 of them fatal, including Sunday’s crash of a Yeti Airlines passenger jet that killing all 72 people on board.
The latest tragedy has reignited debates over the safety of air travel in the Himalayan nation, home to some of the world’s highest mountain peaks, including Mount Everest, and hugely popular with foreign tourists, the mountaineers and skiers.
Al Jazeera details three main reasons why Nepal’s skies are prone to aviation disasters that have killed more than 900 people since 1955.
Weather and terrain
Scenic Nepal is home to treacherous terrain and unpredictable weather, especially during the monsoons. This is why Nepal’s aviation largely depends on a limited type of aircraft such as Twin Otters, Let-L 410s and Dorniers.
Such aircraft require shorter take-off and landing (STOL) airfields in high-altitude areas, as opposed to the so-called trunk sector – the region with better airports where larger aircraft can fly.
“Unpredictable weather changes in high ground between takeoff and landing is the reason for most accidents. On these routes, most domestic flights use visual flight rules (VFR) in which the pilot controls and navigates the aircraft using visual references from the outside,” aviation expert Sanjeev Gautam told Al Jazeera.
A senior pilot of the national carrier Nepal Airlines said that “high terrains are difficult and on top of that we lacked good equipment and facilities.”
“We need better ground crew and aircraft equipped with newer technology in the STOL sector,” he said on condition of anonymity.
“Following the VFR rules accurately is not possible in our weather conditions. For example, the rules say not to enter the clouds, but sometimes it is impossible to avoid. So the pilots take the risk of breaking the rules,” he added
He was getting old
Aviation experts say commercial planes never reach a point where they are unfit to fly and are still in operation.
“Airplanes do not age as we think. Of course they age if you consider their date of manufacture. But since the parts are replaced quite often, they remain functional for many years,” Gautam said at Al Jazeera.
“But we have to understand, the older the aircraft, the higher the maintenance cost. It’s like any other machine,” he said.
Most of the planes operating in Nepal are not new. They cost a lot and flying may not be viable in an economically backward nation.
“We have to opt for buying used planes because we cannot keep the same ticket prices if the investment is made in a new plane,” Sudarshan Bartaula, spokesman for Yeti Airlines, told Al Jazeera.
Manufacturers say that aircraft parts should be routinely replaced at certified maintenance points.
Before purchasing an aircraft, a standard “type certification” process is carried out by civil aviation authorities such as the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the Federal Administration of Aviation (FAA) or any government contracting authority before receiving a certificate. of airworthiness for operations.
The 15-year-old Yeti ATR 72-500, which crashed in clear weather in the tourist city of Pokhara on Sunday, had also undergone this rigorous process before getting permission to fly in Nepal.
“It was a sophisticated model very suitable for Nepal, but we don’t know what went wrong,” said spokesman Bartaula.
“It’s not that the plane was old, there are much older planes flying in Nepalese skies.”
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) controlled by the United Nations recommended that Nepal should disaggregate the CAAN and separate it from performing two functions: of regulator and service provider.
ICAO says that such a situation is conflict. This dichotomy is also said to be one of the main reasons for the EU’s blacklisting of Nepali aircraft flying in its territory since 2013.
The division of these two CAAN functions is what Nepalese pilots, operators and experts say is crucial for the reforms required in the country’s aviation sector.
“It is very important that we separate the two working functions of the CAAN as soon as possible. This is the first step to strengthen the entire Nepalese aviation industry,” expert Gautam told Al Jazeera.
As of 2020, two aviation-related bills calling for a split of CAAN’s functions and a restructuring of the national aviation sector are pending before the Nepalese parliament.
Aviation expert Ratish Chandra Lal Suman, former director general of CAAN, said a revamp of the body is not easy.
“Just separating the two will not help, designating the two entities with autonomy and sustainability is also very important. We must ensure that the regulatory half is also powerful and sustainable,” Suman told Al Jazeera.
If separated, one part will be responsible for aviation regulatory issues such as safety and inspections while the service provider will venture towards managing infrastructure and airports.
To reform the aviation industry, Suman suggests strict compliance with regulations.
“We have to have strict enforcement. The fines for violating the aviation rules are peanuts, no one has been charged, nor has a license been revoked. It is time to ensure these in our industry so that there is no not malpractice,” he told Al Jazeera.
Experts also feel that pilots in Nepal need more and adequate training.
“In the end, everyone points to pilot error during accidents. But the preamble to this is the operator who must ensure adequate training to get quality pilots,” said the pilot of Nepal Airlines.
Gautam thinks that just putting the blame on the drivers will not solve the problem.
“It is important to understand that the operators employ the pilot and these operators are supervised by CAAN which authorizes their licenses. So, when we find faults in a pilot, we must know that the fault is in the whole system where everyone is connected”.