EDITORIAL: Government should help Nepal Airlines get a permit to fly to China

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - The ruling party always boasts of its friendship with China but has been unable to help the failing national flag carrier.

Nepal’s national flag carrier, beloved to many Nepalis, has been unable to capitalise on these sentiments to actually boost revenue for years. It has now emerged that the carrier has failed to obtain a permit to fly to Guangzhou from the Chinese civil aviation authorities, more than five years since it announced a plan to fly to this southern Chinese city. But what can be expected from a management team that focuses more on aircraft acquisitions while completely ignoring the most important aspect for any successful airline--operations? Moreover, the ruling communist government--which has so openly accepted Xi Thought and has touted its close ties to China--has not been able to influence the Asian giant’s civil aviation body to perform a safety audit that would allow Nepal Airlines to finally fly the route.

Prime Minister KP Oli has been quick to criticise the functioning of the national flag carrier. On July 1 this year, while attending a programme to celebrate the airline’s 61st anniversary, Oli went on a tirade. ‘[Nepal Airlines] procures wide-body jets but it doesn’t have destinations to fly to,’ Oli was found to quip. In this, Oli is correct. Nepal Airlines in recent years has had many critical failings. In order to stay competitive in the domestic and international markets, the airline had to procure modern aircraft to replace a severely ageing and inadequate fleet. But a good management team would have planned routes for the aircraft to fly before finalising purchases--and especially before taking ownership of the aircraft. An idle aircraft is prone to run up massive parking fees. Without regular flights to keep it in the air and earn revenue, parking and maintenance fees add up.

However, the management was found to be more focused--even obsessed--with adding aircraft over actually running operations. With office politics plaguing the corporation, the few qualified pilots Nepal Airlines had to fly the newly acquired Airbus jets were forced to find employment elsewhere. The company had to rely on expensive foreign contractual hires, which it continues to do so, while a sufficient number of Nepali pilots could be trained and promoted from within. All this meant further delays; the airline in 2019 began to default on its loan payments for the very first time. Now, even as the airline is finally attempting to bootstrap itself, it faces hurdles--some of it external. The Guangzhou route permit is such a case.

Nepal Airlines, although woefully underprepared, applied for the permit in early 2015, hoping to complete all procedures and start regular flights by the end of that year. Now, four years on, Chinese authorities continue to delay the audit. In 2016, 135 million Chinese travellers flew abroad for tourism, and the number has only been increasing every year. Nepal aims to secure a small piece of this in 2020, expecting at least 350,000 but hoping for over 500,000. With Chinese outbound tourism continuing to rise, the China sector could be a significant moneymaker for Nepal Airlines. After a revision of the air service agreement between the two countries in 2014, a total of 98 flights a week are possible. Six Chinese carriers and one Nepali airline fly between the two countries, making up 48 flights a week. There is room for another airline to step in and fill the gap.

While Nepal Airlines may still be ill-equipped for a safety audit--Nepal’s own civil aviation body has asked it to fix issues--the Chinese side’s reluctance in conducting the audit in the first place is suspect. And Oli may be quick to blame the corporation for all its legitimate failures, but the onus is on his government to intercede with the Chinese side on the flag carrier’s behalf. How can the ruling party claim close ties to China if it cannot even make this audit occur? 

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