Rajesh Raj Dali
Former Director General, Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal
You oversaw the growth of aviation sector since Nepal liberalized aviation sector in early 1990s. What is your assessment about the current growth of Nepal’s airline industry?
First of all, Nepal is a land-locked country; we need road, communications and links. The air transport is very important part of establishing links. So, for the overall development of the country, expansion of aviation service is essential very much. So, we introduced a change in our aviation policy in 1990s enabling entry of the private sector in the aviation sector so that more people would be able get aviation service amid limitation of government and help development of the country. Thus, we adopted liberal sky policy in 1990s. There had been development in aviation sector even before that change but changed policy worked as a catalyst for the entry and expansion of aviation sector. After the entry of the private sector players, aviation sector could see a speedy development.
Although air traffic grew over the years, there is just an international airport in the country. What is your evaluation about condition aviation infrastructure in Nepal?
Obviously, infrastructure has remained poor as you said because the country’s geographical condition is such that airports cannot be built wherever you want. However, the development of the Tribhuvan International Airport is also taking place since long. So, people are coming to Nepal being interested about Nepal which has helped the development of tourism. But, we have failed to develop the international airports as per the increased presence of airlines here. So, there has been pressure and pressure on the only international airport due to increased entry of airlines. So, it was realized long ago that a single international airport is not enough given increased number of airlines, number of passengers they carried and development of tourism. About 20 years ago, a study committee was formed under my coordination and location was found in Nijgadh. Now, the successive government continued the policy of developing second international airport there.
Chinese contractor is involved in building Bhairahawa regional international airport and Pokhara International Airport is being built with Chinese assistance. How do you see the current involvement of China in Nepal’s aviation sector and what are the prospects?
In line with what type of relations two countries are enjoying, China seems to have taken more interest in aviation sector. After we adopted the liberal sky policy, Chinese Y-12 plane entered into Nepal’s sky and our own airlines operated them in the remote areas and have proven. Now, Bhairahawa and Pokhara regional international airports are being developed with involvement with Chinese and we believe it will greatly benefit us. In addition, as Bhairahawa airport has its limitation, developing it and Pokhara airport as regional international airport will be very good. Despite development of the airports with Chinese assistance, there remains involvement of other players as well on technical issues. International airport should be built as per the standard set by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). So, others stakeholders are also involved.
What are the sectors within the aviation sector where China can come in here?
Tourism is my area but from the perspective of general knowledge, I see investment potential from China in Nepal’s energy sector. We are hearing China has been investing in power sector and we have also seen their participation in airport development. They have also been manufacturing planes. They can train Nepali human resources based on advances they made in technological development and enhance the capacity of Nepali human resources.
Within aviation sector, what could be other areas of cooperation?
China has been manufacturing planes and they can come to Nepal and their technical manpower can come here. From the perspective safety, there are similar mountain areas in Nepal and China and two countries can cooperate on reducing accidents in flights to mountain areas.
China provided two planes in grant to Nepal Airline Corporation and it has bought few planes. But, some questions were raised about the performance of Chinese planes. Even in the past, Chinese planes operated in Nepal. What’s your assessment about Chinese planes in terms of safety and performance?
It is not that plane becomes safe when it is new and unsafe when it is old. Maintenance should go ahead side by side along with the use. After giving the new planes to Nepal, the manufacturer should also provide maintenance support. It means, facility of spare parts and maintenance and without these facility, we cannot operate plane even if it is brand new. Obviously, questions have been raised about Chinese planes. But, in my view, if Nepal Airline gets logistic support or maintenance support continuously, issues of safety cannot be addressed gradually. So, I think, there won’t be problem in operation of (Chinese) plane if maintenance support is provided.
As you also worked as safety department of chief at Caan, how do you evaluate Nepal’s aviation safety record?
There are many issues of study in this regard. While taking about the safety issue. We have submitted a report about operation of Twin Otter as an example in the international arena that we can operate the plane safely even in mountainous region. So, while talking about safety, it is challenging to fly due to the geographical condition. There are many challenges in safety due to mountainous region of the country despite flying in the fair weather when climate remains cloud free. We have to enhance our safety based on various international experiences. Safety can be enhanced through a proper coordination among men, machine and environment.
Lately, Chinese tourists are growing in Nepal and there even bigger prospect of attracting more Chinese tourists. You being a signatory of an agreement that enabled air service between the two countries in 1988, how do you evaluate the current air connectivity with China?
The situation at that time was such that there had been air service agreement (ASA) that but flight had not begun. They wanted flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu. For this Nepal’s aviation department China’s counterpart body signed a service agreement to provide air traffic services to the Chinese airline and the flight began in 1989. At that China, China was considered to be too far away but once flight started from Lhasa, people to people relations enhanced and relations also strengthened. After Chinese planes started to operate Lhasa-Kathmandu flight, Nepal Airline Corporation also planned to operate its flights to Lhasa. But, technical problem is that Lhasa airport is at the altitude of 12000 ft. For this, requirement for flight and pilot is different and we didn’t have suitable flight and we could not operate flight to Lhasa but they made modification in their plane and operated Lhasa-Kathmandu flight. After relations began from that flight, has grown well and there are many Chinese airlines operating currently. Now, the number of Chinese tourists has been growing and we can see their growing contribution to Nepal’s tourism sector.
You also served as executive chairman of NAC which is now in a sorry state. How can its situation be improved?
I had worked executive chairman of NAC some 13-14 years ago. The main requirement of NAC is to add fleet. If there more aircraft, it can improve its services. If there are just three planes and something goes wrong in one aircraft, the airline has to cut down the flight by 33 percent and if there are just two planes and problem appears in one plane, flights should be halved. If the airline has 10 aircraft and problem appears in one, the flight is disrupted by just 10 percent. If the national flag carrier has to enhance its reputation in the international arena, it needs to add more planes in its fleet. The issue was raised during my reign as executive chairman. At that time, the NAC had two Boeing 757 and they were taken in lease purchase. The NAC had completed making payment for those planes and the NAC didn’t have any outstanding loans to be paid. Various companies had offered the NAC willing to deliver plane under lease purchase. But, political and management related problem and condition of various countries prevented us making further lease purchase of new planes. Even now, additional planes are most needed for the NAC but without stronger management, the NAC cannot move ahead by just adding the plane in its fleet.
NAC has not operated its flight in mainland China yet. Do you think, it is now possible for NAC to reach there?
It is possible. The air service agreement between the two countries has been amended 3-4 times. Now, NAC is the only company operating international flight. There is no problem for it to expand its operation in Chinese cities if planes are added in its fleet. While signing agreement with China, we didn’t make air routes. We could fly from Kathmandu to Tumlingtar and Lhasa and Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong through Lhasa or Tashkent of Moscow through Chinese territory. If the NAC has planes and has the marketing strategy, there is no problem for linkage with China. The airport in Lhasa may not be suitable but for the air routes that are at the altitude of Mt. Everest, flying Shanghai and Beijing is not impossible if the additional equipments are put on board.
After the April 25 earthquake, we learnt that there should be earthquake-resistant airport infrastructure. What should be done in this regard?
The issue that the airport infrastructure must be earthquake-resistant is being realized since long. It is because air transport is the medium with which we can help the victims of natural disasters immediately. There is a saying that one kilometer of way does not leave anywhere but one km runway takes you in all places of the world. While building airport, we have to develop them based on suitability as shown by the survey without being influenced by any political pressure. We have to find the suitable location and whether the location is safe and find out length of the runway by conducting prefeasibility study firstly. The development of earthquake-resistant structure could developed on continuous basis.
Usually pilots are blamed for accidents. How much do technical errors become responsible for air accidents?
There have been many air accidents in Nepal and their investigations have also taken place. The Main thing is that there is a need for awareness on the part of pilot. They are given such a responsibility where they have to avoid possibility of plane striking any place. The pilot’s job is to avoid such situation while equipments and air traffic service providers help preventing the accidents. During the investigations, pilots are blamed when they don’t perform the duty they are expected of. When the pilot makes one, two and three lapses in performing duty, they have to face blame. International statistics show that machine and weather have also been the reasons for accidents.
There has been a tradition that air operator’s certificate (AOC) is given based on political links. There is concern that CAAN leadership has not been professional while awarding AOC. What’s your take on it?
The main thing is that CAAN provides air operator’s certificate once airline operator fulfills the required criteria. In the past there was not such practice. If people run the organization based on system, no organization becomes bad. It is the team work. If one operates an airline, he or she wants to make earning. But, without pilot and engine, airline cannot be operated. If an entrepreneur takes license, he or she will have opportunity to study about aviation. There are not anything secret in aviation and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has set safety standards for all. If we take trainings as per the geography and local environment of Nepal, we can do all other things as per the international standards.
There has been talk about adding plane in the fleet of NAC. How can the government help the NAC?
The issue of adding the planes for NAC has been under discussion for long. Without plane, the NAC has not meaning. First of all, the NAC should improve its management and it should have pre-plan for cost recovery before purchasing plane and route and destinations should expanded to make good earnings. As a government organization, we have heard many complaints about political maneuvering in NAC and the government should set a system to minimize political influence. As far as strengthening management is concerned, there should be appointment of capable persons in the management.
We are in the final phase of the program. How the cooperation on aviation between Nepal and China can be enhanced?
If Nepali airlines cannot reach China, there can be code sharing agreement between the airlines of the two countries. Chinese planes can fly there as per the requirement of Nepali airlines. China is the country with large population and if we can attract one percent of them, Nepal’s tourism be boosted massively. For this, NAC should also be able to reach China and Chinese airlines are also operating in Nepal. There can be joint marketing campaign between the operators of two countries. Thus, more flights can be added between the two countries if such cooperation is strengthened.