PICS: BIKRAM RAI
Nepal's horrendous air safety record has done incalculable damage to the reputation of a country whose economy depends on tourism. It is time to go to the root of the malaise, find out the underlying reasons for this poor safety record, and take urgent steps to ensure a safer sky. All we have been doing is talking, blaming, and speculating. How many more people need to die before we act?
As always, there has been a flurry of speculation about what happened to the Dornier on Friday morning. We won't know for sure until the report of the investigation team comes out, and this time there are two British air crash investigators also helping.
From preliminary evidence it seems a bird hit the plane on takeoff, and parts of the propeller or wing ricocheted off to hit the control surfaces of the plane. The Dornier 228 is a sturdy German-made turboprop designed to fly on one engine, but something happened to prevent the pilot from turning back to make an emergency landing.
Another aspect that the investigators must turn their attention to is the practice of aircraft overloading on flights to remote area airstrips in Nepal. Most flights to Lukla are on the heavier side either because of deliberate overloading, or under-calculation. Airlines use a 75kg average to calculate the weight of male foreigners, but in reality most are above 80kg. Baggage allowance is 15kg, but up to 20kg is allowed. Passengers also have carry-on bags with heavy trekking gear. In addition, airlines also make money on cargo and there is a tendency to pack it in. Most STOL aircraft in Nepal are overweight, but the extra weight never shows in the load sheets given to pilots.
In the days after the Sita Air crash, civil aviation inspectors conducted spot ramp checks to examine for overloading and found several instances of extra weight on planes. These checks happen after every crash, and then slowly they are forgotten. Spot checks and inspections should have continuity.
As with most accidents, last week's crash was also followed by grisly live tv coverage of the accident scene with unedited footage of half-burnt corpses. If mainstream television channels were bad, the pictures on Facebook and blogs were much worse. The media needs to strictly implement guidelines on visuals, respect the dignity of the dead and recognise the sensitivity of what they are broadcasting. People also need to speak out in social media and ostracise those posting gruesome images.
We know that the real reasons for frequent air crashes in Nepal are lax enforcement of flight rules, regulatory failures, lack of internal checks and balances within airlines. We can eliminate up to 90 per cent of crashes in the future if we just act now to:
1. Stop political interference in pilot selection, licencing, and other aviation matters. Politicians, keep your hands off a profession of which you know nothing about.
2. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) must take its regulatory role more seriously and deploy tough, independent inspectors to conduct regular checks of operators and blacklist those who overlook safety issues.
3. Stop the practice of new airlines inducting old planes.
4. Follow strict international guidelines on pilot discipline and confidential reporting of detrimental crew behaviour.
6. Regulate the cut-throat competition among airlines that forces them to fly in bad weather or with technical snags, and cut corners on safety.
7. Avoid conflict of interest and ban airline owners and promoters from serving in the CAAN board.
Captain Vijay Lama has been flying Twin Otters and Boeing 757s for Nepal Airlines for the last 24 years.
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