How a Buddha Air plane flew the wrong way and landed 255 kilometres awayGround staff changed the flight number but did not brief the pilots who, in turn, failed to check the passenger manifest and flew, officials say.
Next time you take a Buddha Air flight, make sure to reconfirm, as you board the plane, that the plane is flying to your destination airport.
Those who did not do that on Friday were in for a surprise.
When 69 passengers boarded Buddha Air’s ATR 72 on Friday afternoon, they were headed for Janakpur. But when they landed, they found themselves in Pokhara.
Buddha Air admitted to serious lapses on its side.
Birendra Bahadur Basnet, managing director of the carrier, told the Post that they have formed a committee to investigate the incident.
Since domestic carriers resumed services on September 21 after nearly six months of no flights due to the pandemic, planes are flying almost full to all destinations.
On Friday also, there was a lot of hustle and bustle at the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport. It was a breezy afternoon and the weather was not quite favourable for the flights—some had already been delayed.
Carriers were in a bid to make use of every available weather window to take the passengers on board as quickly as possible and take off.
Buddha Air’s flight U4505 was cleared to take off for Janakpur airport in the plains. Passengers were taken in and the plane took off, with its estimated arrival time at Janakpur by 3:15 pm. When it took off, it had already been delayed. But when it landed, it actually landed in Pokhara instead of the destination airport 255 kilometres away.
As per the preliminary report, due to weather issues, flights to Pokhara were permitted until 3pm under the visual flight rules (VFR). The VFR is a set of regulations under which a pilot operates an aircraft in weather conditions generally clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going.
“The weather was already causing flight delays and to make up for the flying time, Buddha Air officials decided to fly to Pokhara first,” said an official at the airline company.
Accordingly, the flight number was changed. “The difference in flight schedule between Janakpur and Pokhara was 15 to 20 minutes,” said the official.
Then the mix-up happened.
“The ground staff transferred [on paper] 69 passengers of flight U4505 to flight U4607 which actually was cleared for Pokhara by the air traffic controllers,” said the official.
Everything was in the right order but the ground staff and the flight attendant failed to brief the flight’s captain and co-pilot that the flight’s number had been changed, according to the official.
“The flight attendant did make an announcement on the flight that it was heading to Janakpur,” said the official.
But there was nothing the passengers could have done, as the plane was already airborne and headed to its destination—Pokhara.
“There was miscommunication between the ground staff and the pilots,” said the official. “The flying pilots also did not look at the passengers’ manifest.”
The Post’s attempts to talk to the pilots failed, as they were not allowed to speak as per the company rules.
Aviation experts say such incidents may happen, but they happen quite rarely.
Tri Ratna Manandhar, former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, said this is the second incident of such kind in Nepal’s aviation history in the last two and a half-decades.
In 1993, a Twin Otter of then Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation had landed in Simara airport which was supposed to land in Bharatpur airport.
“The Buddha Air incident happened due to miscommunication. It’s not part of safety lapses but it’s a serious lapse on the part of management,” said Manandhar. “Such lapses cause passengers to suffer. On the other hand, airlines too have to bear losses.”
One international event in the recent past is related to British Airways.
In March last year, a British Airways plane landed in Edinburgh, though it was destined for Düsseldorf in Germany.
According to reports, the incident happened after the flight paperwork was submitted incorrectly.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, the country’s aviation regulatory body, said it would launch a formal inquiry into the incident.
“We had made an inquiry into the matter with the airport. As today [Saturday] is a public holiday, a formal probe is possible tomorrow,” Raj Kumar Chettri, spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, told the Post. “Officials from Buddha Air will be summoned on Sunday to brief on the lapses.”
Basnet of Buddha Air said there was miscommunication from the ground staff from the very beginning and at the final stage, just before the plane took off, pilots did not look at the passenger manifest.
“Paperwork was fine,” said Basnet. “There were weather conditions also so the pilots were more focused on flying.”
The airline company said all the passengers were flown to Janakpur directly from Pokhara later in the day.
“It’s an occupational error... or a human error you can say. Though such errors cause losses to the organisation, it has nothing to do with the safety issue,” said Basnet. “Our internal committee will recommend an appropriate system not to repeat the mistake in the future.”