Royal Nepal Airlines Nepali pilots are regarded as some of the best in the world with thousands of flying hours in some of the world's most difficult terrain. For a long time, a sense of pride about flying the national flag kept them here. But increasingly fed up with poor working conditions, lack of growth prospects and attracted by salaries sometimes fifty times higher than what they earn here, there is an exodus of Royal Nepal Airlines pilots.
"Nepali pilots have very good job prospects because foreign airlines recognise and value their experience," says Captain Vijay Lama who has just upgraded from Twin Otters to 757s. "The only way the airline can keep its pilots is to make it financially rewarding for them to stay."
This is a huge loss for the airline which has invested a lot of money in training the pilots. There used to be 130 pilots flying for Royal Nepal Airlines in its heydays in the 1990s when the airline had four jets, two Avros, two Pilatus Porters and nine Twin Otters. Today, there are fewer than 60 pilots flying two 757s and four Twin Otters. Some two dozen pilots who retired have not been replaced and others have left to join foreign carriers.
Airlines sources say the first phase of the exodus was 10 years ago when domestic private carriers lured away Royal Nepal Airlines pilots with higher salaries. As private airlines expanded and added modern equipment, pilots of the state-owned carrier found it better to switch jobs than keep flying ageing Twin Otters.
Only after Capt P J Shah left Royal Nepal Airlines to join Emirates in 1988 and Capt A Z Sherpa who switched to Cathay Pacific did more pilots fly away to foreign airlines. The biggest recruiter of Nepali pilots in recent months has been Phuket Air, a private Thai operator that is beginning thrice-weekly Bangkok-Kathmandu-Dubai flights from January. Phuket has the same model Boeing 757 200s that Nepali pilots have been flying for the past 15 years.
The first to go earlier this year were recently-retired Royal Nepal pilots, Capt RK Lama and BM Amatya. According to International Civil Aviation Organisation rules, they can fly for another two years. Then Capt GP Rijal and Capt KR Manandhar also left to fly for Phuket. Royal Nepal sources told us more pilots have shown interest and may leave soon.
"This is an incalculable loss for Royal Nepal Airlines and a big gain for a foreign airline," says an airline source citing the cost of regular simulator training over the years keeping the pilots licenses valid. The average salary of a Royal Nepal Airlines 757 captain with 15,000 hours is Rs 18,000 a month with allowances for flying time and layovers. Phuket is said to be offering a minimum of Rs 288,000 per month plus perks.
Qatar and Gulf Air also interviewed a few Royal Nepal pilots, but although a 757 rating allows pilots to fly 767s that Gulf operates, there are problems with equipment compatibility. Former Royal Nepal Airlines pilots who were flying for now-defunct private domestic operators like Necon have also left, with two now flying for India's Deccan Air which operates ATR-72s.
Paradoxically, the shortage of pilots among Nepal's rapidly growing domestic airline fleet is being filled by Indian pilots and Cosmic Air's new Fokker 100s are being flown by European instructor pilots who are training Nepali crew. "The traffic is not all one-way," says one domestic airline operator, "there are many Indians flying for Nepali airlines, especially those that operate Dornier 228s."
Royal Nepal's shrinking fleet and irregular service also means the remaining pilots get barely enough hours in the air to keep their licenses valid. "There is just no career growth within Royal Nepal Airlines, staff morale is low, you see corruption every day, it is disgusting," admits a pilot who says after flying Twin Otters for many years out of a sense of duty, he is thinking of leaving.
But by far the biggest reason for going abroad is poor pay. "It's the money factor," says Capt Shuva Shrestha. "What we get paid in a month what foreign pilots earn for flying for an hour." Considering the terrain they fly in, Nepali pilots are rated the best and qualified enough to operate in any part of the world and there are carriers willing to pay good money for them.
Not everyone is sad to see the pilots go. "We must be happy for them, they will have exposure to state-of-the-art equipment, they will earn more, and have better job satisfaction. What's wrong with that?" asks Royal Nepal's chief pilot, Capt VK Shrestha, who retired recently. "When pilots find better opportunities they will leave because at the end of the day it's all about flying higher."
INTERVIEW: Royal Nepal Airlines captains are bailing out >>