When Himalaya Airlines, a Nepal-China joint venture, operated its first flight to Beijing in March 2016 with Prime Minister KP Oli on board (pictured, below), there was hope that Nepal would finally be struck off the European safety blacklist.
However, the European Union (EU) Air Safety List was updated early this month, and Nepal is still on it.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) had seen Himalaya Airlines as an opportunity to demonstrate that Nepal meets the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards. Indeed, there was an expectation that a new airline with new Airbus 320s would set new safety standards for Nepal.
But Himalaya Airlines seems to have run into considerable turbulence soon after takeoff. There have been resignations or termination of key technical staff, and accusations that it is ignoring safety measures.
Himalaya Airlines asked its Director of Flight Operations, Gabriele Ascenzo, to resign in November, apparently after he criticised management for not following safety guidelines. A veteran pilot with expertise in airline safety, Ascenzo had been hired by the Airlines to ensure compliance with ICAO procedures.
Vijay Shrestha, Vice President of Himalaya Airlines, declined to comment on Ascenzo’s exit, saying only that his contract was “terminated by mutual agreement”.
Ascenzo had helped establish Himalaya’s Flight Operations Department, hiring flight managers and pilots, and preparing flight training standards. At least six other pilots and one performance engineer have also quit the airline in the past month. Some of them were sacked and have filed a case at the labour court in Kathmandu, accusing the airline of violating employment contracts.
Tension between management and staff grew when Zhao Guo Quiang of Tibet Airlines— which holds 49% share in Himalaya Airlines (with 51% share owned by Nepal’s Yeti World Investment Pvt. Ltd.) — became the new president three months ago. He was also declared the Accountable Manager, but Ascenzo argued that the appointments to the posts vital for air safety were subject to CAAN’s approval.
Ascenzo paid the price for drawing the company’s attention to ICAO requirements. He did not receive his salary for two months, and his contract was finally terminated. It has been learned that the airline sacked him on the ground that he was above 65 — the age limit for pilots. But he had crossed that limit a year before joining Himalaya Airlines, and was not a crew member.
After Zhao’s arrival, the airline also slashed allowances for pilots, who were already angry over not being given insurance coverage for medical expenses and loss of licence.
After several pilots quit, the airline apparently cancelled the leave of some of the remaining pilots. Some disgruntled staffers also said the airline was reducing the number of hours that co-pilots need to fly the planes in order to be promoted as pilots.
Another crew member told Nepali Times that training protocols for first officers were shortened, to enable them to be upgraded more quickly, at the expense of safety.
“Co-pilots need to fly for 4,000 hours to become pilots as per the original training manual of Himalaya Airlines. Reducing that number without proper assessment compromises aviation safety,” said a senior pilot.
Vijay Shrestha, who represents the Yeti group in Himalaya Airlines, dismissed the allegation. “We are revising the manual so Nepali co-pilots can become pilots sooner,” he said. “And we are doing this only after assessing that the 4,000-hour requirement was not necessary.”
Himalaya Airlines is also accused of operating without a qualified safety manager, but Shrestha said that an experienced Chinese pilot who previously worked for the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) has been appointed as a safety manager and his name has been forwarded to CAAN for approval.
CAAN spokesperson Birendra Shrestha said: “We have received documents about his appointment, but need time to review them and decide whether the Chinese candidate is qualified for this job.”
Geopolitics at play?
Himalaya Airlines was aiming to add a second aircraft to its fleet in September, targeting new destinations like New Delhi. But it failed to secure the lease of another Airbus 320, and India is delaying the approval for such an aircraft to fly to New Delhi.
Indian officials seem to believe that Himalaya Airlines is essentially a Chinese venture, and that China is trying to capitalise on it to spread its influence in Nepal.
“Nepal is a low-hanging fruit in the international aviation industry,” said an Indian national working for Himalaya Airlines. “But the way this airline is being run shows that the Chinese do not want to turn it into a successful business.”
There are allegations that Tibet Airlines will bring in planes on wet leases and use Nepal’s traffic rights on lucrative routes with Nepali migrant workers.
“Bringing in an aircraft on a wet lease will not generate employment for Nepalis,” the pilot said. “It will just be a way for Tibet Airlines to suck the profits out of Nepal.”
However, some Nepali aviation sources said the Indians are just envious that the Chinese were first with an airline joint venture. Himalaya Airlines’s Vice President Vijay Shrestha is hopeful that his company will be allowed to fly to New Delhi when the second Airbus 320 finally arrives in January.
“We will bring in three new aircraft next year, and the first two will be under dry leases,” he clarified. “Only the third aircraft will be on a wet lease.”
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