Nepal Airlines lacks pilots and plans to keep its Chinese planes airborneAs the aircraft languish in the hangar, the corporation’s losses soar
In 2014, the first batch of two Chinese-made 17-seater Y12e aircraft arrived in Kathmandu. But they remained grounded for months. Nepal Airlines Corporation did not have pilots to fly them. Five years on, the problem remains the same.
The national flag carrier has four Chinese aircraft—and all of them are languishing at the airport, incurring losses to the corporation in millions. The corporation says it has been scouting for pilots [captains] to fly the planes, but to no avail.
In August 2014, Nepal Airlines had hired 18 pilots and co-pilots to fly the Y12e planes.
Four captains—Ang Noori Sherpa, Anish Man Shakya, Uddav Ghimire and Nependra Bhattarai—were then sent to China for training. Captain Sanjay Bade Shrestha had joined the corporation in 2013. Among them, Anish Man Shakya has resigned.
Shortage of pilots, disputes among the pilots and regulatory limit are the key problems that have led to the grounding of the Chinese aircraft, multiple sources who have closely followed the development told the Post.
“Even when there were five captains to operate two Y12es, the planes did not fly,” said one of the four captains, who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media. “It’s because all the captains wanted to become Airbus pilots.”
The 17-seater Y12e arrived in Kathmandu on November 3, 2014, and was intended to serve remote mountain airfields like Lukla, Jomsom, Manang, Simikot, Rara, Jumla and Dolpa.
But the plane had a regulatory limit, meaning that it could only fly to airports with a maximum grade of up to 2 percent or about 1.2 degrees of slope.
Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, the regulator, has to clear the aircraft to serve airports with a slope of more than 2 degrees.
As a result, the Y12e was only operated on the Pokhara and Simara routes, pending the issuance of commercial flight clearance by the regulator on mountain airfields.
In September 2018, Nepal Airlines Corporation successfully conducted a test flight of Y12e aircraft to Lukla Airport, five years after it was inducted into its fleet. Test flights have been completed on remote Jomsom, Manang and Simikot airports, but their performance charts have not been released yet.
As far as the dispute among pilots is concerned, it’s a failure on the part of management, the sources said.
The problem started when Sherpa was sent to the US for a flight instructor training programme. When he returned in July 2016, he tendered his resignation. Another pilot went on leave; the third pilot did not update his flying licence.
In 2017, Ghimire was the only one pilot who could fly the Y12e because Bhattarai was suspended for 11 months by the management after he misbehaved with the then managing director Sugat Ratna Kansakar. Shrestha had gone on leave.
During this period, the corporation had even appointed Peniata Maiava, a New Zealander, as an instructor pilot for the Chinese aircraft. But he was close to his retirement age of 65 years at the time of his appointment. He returned.
Pilots are not allowed to fly aircraft without the renewal of their pilot proficiency check by the instructor pilot. Every six months airline pilots must undergo proficiency checks that are conducted by the instructor pilot.
The pilot problem became even more glaring after the Nepal Airlines management decided to send Ghimire for the Airbus training early this year.
“The management picked Ghimire for Airbus training although there were senior captains ahead of him,” said another pilot who also did not wish to be named.
To fill the vacuum, the management decided to hire captains Phizonath Nepali and KB Limbu.
Again in April this year, Sherpa, the sole Y123 instructor pilot, was sent to China for training. But he tendered his resignation upon his return and left for the US.
Sherpa’s resignation grounded Bhattarai and Shrestha as they were unable to fly aircraft without the renewal of their pilot proficiency check by the instructor pilot. This also meant Nepali and Limbu could not acquire a type rating—the regulating agency’s certification of an aircraft pilot to fly a certain aircraft type that requires additional training.
In June, Sherpa again joined the corporation and has been flying one of the four aircraft.
According to Nepal Airlines management, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal has approved the type rating programme of Nepali and Limbu. They have to fly with instructor pilot Sherpa as a co-pilot for 50 hours to become the commander of Y12e aircraft.
Madan Kharel, executive chairman of Nepal Airlines, said Nepali and Limbu would soon fly the Y12e planes. “We are also searching for other pilots to keep the planes flying,” he said.
When the Post asked about allegations by some pilots that the management was promoting nepotism, Kharel said, “We are promoting the deserving people.”
“I have clearly said that if someone [pilot] completes the certain level of flying [maybe 1,500 hours of flying], they would be eligible to fly Airbus jets,” said Kharel.
According to pilots, while a pilot can fly up to 1,000 hours a year, it normally takes at least two years to complete these flying hours.
The internal rifts and management failure to address the shortage of pilots have been taking a heavy toll on the corporation.
The 56th annual audit report of the Office of the Auditor General released in April this year shows that the Chinese-made planes have been incurring heavy losses to the national flag carrier every year since they were purchased.
In the previous fiscal year, losses from Y12e stood at Rs39.4 million.
However, according to the report, losses from four Chinese-made Y12e planes have started to balloon from the last fiscal year. Last fiscal year, the corporation earned Rs25 million. However, its operating and indirect expenditures stood at Rs188.5 million and Rs96.3 million respectively. In total, losses from the Y12e operation stood at Rs289.7 million.
The actual losses, however, will begin after Nepal Airlines starts paying the installments and interest on the loan it has taken to buy the Chinese planes.
In November 2012, Nepal Airlines had signed a commercial agreement with Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a Chinese government undertaking, to procure six aircraft—two 56-seater MA60s and four 17-seater Y12es.
As part of the deal, China provided one MA60 and one Y12e worth Rs2.94 billion as gift in 2014. The other aircraft were bought at Rs3.72 billion—a soft loan provided by China’s EXIM Bank.
The manufacturer completed assembling the 17-seater Y12e for Nepal in early 2015 after the first two were delivered in 2014. But they had to sit in the factory hangar as the corporation refused delivery of the planes due to their poor performance in the Nepali skies and lack of pilots.
The Y-12, the first plane China sold abroad, has been around since the 1980s. The first export was made to Sri Lanka in 1986. Since then, more than 130 Y-12s have been delivered to customers in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The Y-12e in 2006 became the first Chinese civilian aircraft to obtain both type and production certificates from the US Federal Aviation Administration, a governmental body that regulates civil aviation.
For the Nepal Airlines management, these aircraft have become a burden, many top officials say, as they are not generating profit, they are not flying on the routes they were originally intended to serve and there are difficulties in procuring spare parts. The management, on the other hand, has been unable to find a lasting solution to the pilot shortage issue.
On different occasions the management has been trying to convince the government to lease out the Y12es to the Nepal Army, which is also running short of fixed-wing planes for emergency and rescue purpose, to get rid of the burden.
The overstretched national flag carrier, whose domestic fleet consists of two antique Twin Otter planes to serve remote airports, had planned to serve remote and tourist destinations with the four new Y12e aircraft. “But it was overrated,” a senior official at the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, the aviation regulator, told the Post on condition of anonymity because he feared being embroiled in controversy.
“Many experts had said that the Y12e would be a fitting alternative to the Canadian-built Twin Otter—the corporation’s workhorse serving on remote routes since the 1970s. But that proved wrong,” said the official.
Last week, a trade union representative of Nepal Airlines Corporation, who was speaking at the corporation’s 61st anniversary, said the Y12e planes could be leased to the Nepal Army.
But the proposal did not seem to amuse Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who also looks after the tourism portfolio, as he came down heavily on the Nepal Airlines Corporation and its management.
“What’s the logic behind leasing the Y12e to the Nepal Army? said Oli. “Is it unsafe? If it’s unsafe, then why are you forcing the Nepal Army to fly it? If the Nepal Army can fly these planes, why can’t Nepal Airlines?”