Nepali Times
Royal Nepal Airlines captains are bailing out

Captain Kul Bahadur Limbu has been flying for Royal Nepal Airlines for the last 25 years. He also heads the National Airlines Pilots Association. Now a senior captain flying Boeing 757s, he explains why many of his colleagues are bailing out.

Why this out migration of pilots?
It is a serious problem. Since the open sky policy 10 years ago, 42 pilots have left Royal Nepal Airlines. The main reasons are salaries and perks which are way below market rates even within Nepal. There is only one way to correct it: pay pilots more. If management can't raise their salaries, it should up their allowances. Or else this airline that runs on tax-payer's money may one day have planes and route rights but no pilots.

Which sector is most affected by the exodus?
Domestic has been hit harder and there is actually a shortage of pilots. The remaining pilots are flying up to 100 hours a month, which is the upper limit. How long can they go on like that?

Where are the pilots going?
Actually, I don't see many of them going to other countries. Yes, some have gone to Thailand and elsewhere but as the domestic airlines grow there are lots of well-paying opportunities right at home. Until recently, private Nepali airlines were only flying turboprops, now Cosmic is flying Fokker 100s. I hear other airlines are also upgrading to jets. But more important than equipment is that they are paid almost as much as foreign airlines.

How has Royal Nepal Airlines management responded to the departure of its pilots?
They have been quite indifferent. The standard reaction is: people come and go. That attitude has backfired. Management is unable to fill the vacancies. And airline pilots needs to be skilled, well-trained with regular simulator tests. More importantly, after 9/11, getting pilot training in the US and in Europe has become more difficult. Even senior pilots like us have to obtain security, justice and defense clearances. That is why private airlines are poaching from Royal Nepal.

Who is to blame?
Our politicians were never serious, they interfered with the operations and ruined it. Opening our sky does not mean you sell off the national interest. We should have never given away our fifth-freedom rights at the cost of the national flag carrier. Even Japan doesn't allow Royal Nepal Airlines to pick up passengers between Osaka and Shanghai, yet our politicians have given away our rights from Kathmandu to onward destinations to foreign airlines. What did the country achieve doing that? We didn't get more tourists, we just hurt our own national airlines.

Is this a conspiracy to ground the airline?
I wouldn't be surprised if the aviation mafia is working on a plan to kill off Royal Nepal Airlines. We believe that the country needs to have a strong national flag carrier if it wants to strengthen its hold on tourism. Yesterday our forests and rivers were sold off, today they are selling off our air traffic rights.

But the airline is a victim of politics.
In democracy, it is natural to have a difference of opinion. But when it comes to the interest of the national flag carrier, there is no alternative but to unite. We need to learn from our past mistakes. Perhaps we did not have any vision in the past. But now we need to listen to others even if that means the opposition. We need to take progressive steps and change antiquated bylaws.

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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)