9-15 May 2014 #706

New planes, new hope

New planes and overhauled management can restore confidence in Nepal Airlines and the country whose flag it proudly flies
Vijay Lama

For many Nepalis, it seems to be a compulsory ritual to badmouth our nation and its national airline. By repeating that there is no hope for Nepal and no hope for Nepal Airlines there is a danger that it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When the airline finally added a new aircraft (pic, right) to its fleet last week for the first time in 27 years, there were cynical comments in media and social networking sites about airline managers thinking about kickbacks. The poor condition of our country and its flag carrier have nothing to do with Nepal or Nepal Airlines. The blame goes to greedy and selfish politicians who put their own interest ahead of the interest of the country, its people and its flag carrier. The tragedy is that we have learnt nothing from the mistakes of the 1990s that led to the deterioration of the airline.

For us loyal employees, however, the induction of eight new aircrafts in the next two years has restored hope and confidence that we can rebuild a once proud company. But we are still wary about political interference and lack of transparency that may once more stymie efforts to run an airline that all Nepalis will be honoured to call our own.

Unfortunately, the sense of relief about the new plane did not last long as private operators saw the drastically low promotional fares offered by Nepal Airlines on trunk routes as a threat. There has been intense lobbying to question the safety record of the MA60, and to spread rumours that this was the real reason the EU put Nepal on the black list.

The Xian MA60s were originally intended for the Royal Nepal Army during the conflict years in a deal backed by the palace. Because the advance had already been paid, in 2010 the government renegotiated a ‘buy-one-get-one free’ deal so that one of the two MA60s and two of the four Y-12s will be grants.

The Nepal Airlines management was attacked for pushing a plane that had a questionable safety record, and the opposition was so fierce that negotiations nearly collapsed. Managing Director Madan Kharel, however, persevered and overcame intense pressures to get the contract back on track.

As a pilot myself, I can state categorically that we don’t buy a plane unless it is safe and its airworthiness is beyond doubt. Having visited the Xian factory in Shanxi and inspected their manufacturing process, I can vouch for the fact that both the MA60 and the Y-12 meet international aviation safety standards. The twin-engined turboprop is based on the Russian designed An-24 to land in rough and short airstrips with minimal ground support. Its two engines are Canadian-made Pratt & Whitney PW127J turboprops, and it is equipped with Rockwell Collins cockpit avionics from the US.

More than 150 MA60s have been delivered to airlines mainly in Asia and Africa, including Merpati in Indonesia operating a fleet of 14 and Lao Airlines flying four. Much has been made of the six hull losses that the type has suffered, but none of them were determined to be due to technical fault with the aircraft.

We can understand private operators being concerned about the state-run airline starting trunk route services because its low fares will directly challenge their monopoly and high prices. This cartel system keeps air fares outrageously high not just in the domestic sector, but also on international routes. Surveys have shown that Nepal is one of the most expensive destinations to fly to, and to fly within.

The proposed acquisition of two Airbus 320s next year will allow Nepal Airlines to serve a price controlling function so that Nepali workers will not have to pay their hard-earned money for exorbitant fares on the Gulf, Malaysia, and India routes.

To be sure, adding new equipment will not solve the problem if the airline’s management remains weak and exposed to political interference. To turn Nepal Airlines into a service-oriented, sustainable business, it needs to be cleaned up: its management streamlined, pilots and engineers made more productive, and the company freed from the clutches of rival unions and the government.

One immediate challenge for Nepal Airlines will be to restructure the salary scale of air and ground crew so that professional staff can be retained. The airline is suffering a shortage of pilots and engineers who have been attracted by better salaries and perks in private airlines. Staff salary should more realistically reflect market rates.

There are two ways to look at Nepal Airlines. One is to say nothing will change and the airline is doomed. The other is to hope that new equipment will reinject new vigour and hope for the airline and the country whose flag it proudly flies.

Captain Vijay Lama has been flying for Nepal Airlines for the past 27 years.

Read also:

Royal Nepal Airlines battles battered image PRAGYA SHRESTHA

No fly zone KEDAR DAHAL

Nepal by air

Our pilots are being pirated NAVIN SINGH KHADKA

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