Nepal wants to be off aviation blacklist. It has not passed key bills yetThe government has been working on the proposed legislation since 2009 when it made a commitment to ICAO to split the civil aviation body during the safety audit.
Two long-pending aviation bills, whose passage would have hastened the removal of Nepal from the European Commission's air safety list, encountered another setback after the tourism minister stopped them from being tabled in the House for discussion. Parliament was subsequently prorogued, and the proposed pieces of legislation were once again put in deep storage.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal Bill and the Air Service Authority of Nepal Bill envisage splitting Nepal’s aviation body into two entities—service provider and regulator, a condition for Nepal to be struck off the air safety list. Nepali carriers have been barred from flying in Europe due to safety issues since 2013.
The European Commission and the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have urged Nepal to break up the aviation regulator with a clear demarcation of its powers and responsibilities because its dual functions gave rise to a conflict of interest.
Until that happens, Europe will be closed to airlines from Nepal, and they are sorely disappointed by the government's sluggishness.
“That’s an unprofessional act. The intention is clear. The government has not been able to pass the bills for the last three years. There is little chance that they will get ratified in the few months before the election to a new parliament,” said Rameshwar Thapa, president of the Airlines Operators’ Association of Nepal, the apex body of Nepal’s private airlines.
On March 1, the Parliament Secretariat had included the two aviation bills on the agenda for a meeting of the lower house scheduled for March 2.
“The bills were put on the lower house agenda, and it was in consultation with the government,” Gopal Nath Yogi, secretary at the House of Representatives, told the Post, in a reference to the Tourism and Law ministries.
But on March 2, Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Prem Bahadur Ale suddenly requested the Parliament Secretariat to hold back the bills, explaining that some employees of the aviation regulator were opposed to the planned fragmentation of their office.
“We were requested to hold the bills as Minister Ale said he would settle the issue first,” said Yogi. The Post’s repeated attempts to contact Minister Ale were not immediately successful.
Two weeks later, on March 15, President Bidya Bhandari prorogued the session of the Federal Parliament. Insiders say the bills are now in uncertain territory.
“If the bills are not passed, Nepal’s aviation and tourism sectors will suffer ultimately. Someone has to be responsible,” said Thapa.
The two bills sailed through the National Assembly. On August 2, 2021, the upper house unanimously passed them, five months after they were registered.
Insiders say there is larger politics to prevent the bills from being passed into law. They say that once the civil aviation body is separated, some top position holders will lose the dual benefits they have been receiving.
The existing system allows the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal’s director general to issue tenders for multi-billion dollar projects. The same person also has the plum job of overseeing compliance with the project and the aviation regulations governing the issuance of licences to airlines and crews.
“No one wants to lose this scope and power. That’s why, despite intense pressure, it has become hard to separate the civil aviation body for a long time,” said Thapa.
Such dual functions lead to a conflict of interest, the European Commission, for example, has maintained.
“Obviously, one person cannot perform two roles,” said Rajan Pokhrel, former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. “That’s like being both witch and exorcist.”
The government has been working on the proposed legislation since 2009 when Nepal made a commitment to the ICAO to separate the civil aviation body during its safety audit in 2009. But the process has been held up by the bureaucracy at every step.
After 12 years, the audit is scheduled to return to Nepal next month, but Nepal has not fulfilled its commitment.
“Holding up such crucial bills for years is a crime against public safety. It’s a wilful violation of legally established global regulations for handling issues of public safety,” said Pokhrel. “It’s pathetic to stop the bills because of a protest launched by a few employees.”
Every successive tourism minister and political leaders have been constantly pledging to the diplomatic community that Nepal will pass the bills and start the process to have it removed from the bad books of the European Commission.
“The problem lies in our system,” said aviation analyst Hemant Arjyal. “No one cares about the country. The politicians are wise while making pledges and commitments. But this is the task that we should do. Pledges will not work.”
Arjyal said it would be better to pass the bills through the ordinance route now.
In December 2013, the European Commission imposed a blanket ban on Nepali airlines from flying into the 28-nation bloc after the September 2012 crash of Sita Air Flight 601 at the Manohara River near Kathmandu airport minutes after take-off. Nineteen people, including seven British citizens, died in the disaster.
The commission became more concerned after that fatal crash, and it prevented airlines from Nepal from entering the continent as the country reported a spate of air accidents over the years.
Between 2008 and 2012, Nepal saw at least two air crashes a year.
The European Union, since then, has been watching Nepal’s air safety development process closely.
Nepal’s aviation sector has been booming with air traveller numbers reaching nearly 10 million with billions in investment in the industry.
“With two new international airports that will come into operation by this year, the safety situation will also be challenging,” said Pokhrel. “We should not take safety for granted.”
But Nepali politicians are least bothered. They keep making commitments but do nothing to fulfil them.
Nepali politicians have made many promises to have Nepal removed from the air safety list of the European Commission.
The latest was on February 7, when Minister Ale requested assistance to have Nepal removed from the list during a meeting with EU Ambassador to Nepal Nona Deprez.
In November 2021, Minister Ale had appealed to a delegation of the European Union led by Paola Pampaloni, deputy managing director of the European Union’s External Affairs for Asia and the Pacific, to consider removing Nepal from the European Commission Air Safety List.
In October 2020, during the 12th meeting of the Joint Commission between Nepal and the European Union, Nepal made a presentation on its substantial efforts to improve air safety, notably regarding the proposed new aviation legislation, saying it was currently under consideration by the Federal Parliament.
In March 2019, during a meeting with Pampaloni who was on a Nepal visit, the then foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali had assured her that Nepal had made significant improvements in its flight safety, and urged her to remove Nepal from the air safety list.
In August 2019, former tourism minister Yogesh Bhattarai said he had urged the EU ambassador to remove Nepal from the blacklist.
In February 2017, former foreign minister Prakash Sharan Mahat had requested EU Vice-President Frederica Mogherini in Brussels to lift the ban on Nepal's carriers.
In October 2016, then tourism minister Jeevan Bahadur Shahi, addressing the 39th session of the ICAO General Assembly, had appealed to the body to remove Nepal from the air safety list.
Insiders say these are bogus promises of Nepali politicians. “Instead of requesting and making fake promises, why don't the politicians pass the bills?” said Pokhrel. “What’s stopping them?”
Another former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, who requested anonymity, said employees in top positions don’t want to work in a small organisation which curtails their power and benefits.
“They influence the politicians, and the politicians make decisions in their favour. They also provoke the employees by saying that if the aviation body is broken up, their future will be jeopardised, and their salaries and benefits will be cut,” he said.
“From 2009, Nepal has been lying to the global aviation watchdogs.”
Arjyal too says that if the employees holding top positions are not honest about safety and development, it will mean nothing even if you split the entity.
The ban has affected Nepal tourism enormously. Travel trade entrepreneurs say that due to the travel advisories, travellers normally don’t prefer to visit countries whose aviation systems are questioned.
As a result of the ban, national flag carrier Nepal Airlines missed a big opportunity to cash in on the million-dollar charter flight business during the Covid-19 lockdown as hundreds of flights were conducted all over the world for evacuation purposes.
An industry insider said the business was worth up to Rs10 billion during the lockdown, which was mostly gobbled up by foreign airlines.
While the two crucial civil aviation bills gather dust, ICAO is scheduled to conduct a full safety audit of Nepal’s aviation sector this April. The last such assessment was done in 2009.
ICAO's Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme Continuous Monitoring Approach (USOAP CMA) focuses on a state's capability to provide safety oversight by assessing whether it has effectively and consistently implemented the critical elements of the safety oversight system.
A 10-member team of auditors are scheduled to arrive in Nepal on April 10. They will begin the 10-day audit from April 13, said Deo Chandra Lal Karna, spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.
“Obviously, among several questions, one particular question on the separation of the civil aviation body will be raised by the audit team. It’s Nepal’s inability to split the aviation body,” said Karna.
Insiders say Nepal’s failure to pass the bills may be an obstacle to getting a full point.
“The House may sit for the budget season in May. But there is little chance that the bills will get prioritised,” said Pokhrel. “The ordinance route is a far cry.”
It’s been nearly a decade that the European Commission has continued its ban on Nepali airlines.
“Nepal will soon have three international airports, it’s crucial for the country to act promptly,” said Thapa. “If we don’t act and follow the sanction list, it will spell disaster for Nepal’s ailing tourism industry.”
(Binod Ghimire contributed reporting.)