Nepal has yet again, witnessed an unspeakably tragic incident involving an airplane crash of unimaginable scale. Yeti Airlines’ ATR-72 aircraft flying from Kathmandu to the tourist city of Pokhara on Sunday that crashed at the Seti river gorge, has turned out to be the worst and the biggest accident in the domestic aviation history of Nepal.
Out of the 72 onboard, 68 passengers and four crew members(by Tuesday evening) at the time of filling this story, the bodies of 71 were recovered.
The captain of the flight Kamal KC was my neighbor in Budanilkantha, Kathmandu. He was a man of calm composure and had over 20 years of flying experience. The co-pilot Anju Khatiwada coincidently, had lost her former husband, also a pilot, in another air crash incident some 15 years back.
Nepal’s Poor Flight-Safety Record
Although the Kathmandu-Pokhara route is considered relatively safer compared to many dangerous air routes in Nepal like Jomsom or Lukla, the Sunday incident has raised many questions regarding air safety in Nepal. Why are there repeated incidents of airplane crashes in Nepal within a short span of time? What are the shortcomings facing the aviation sector? How is the government going to improve the shortfalls surrounding air safety?
On Tuesday, the country got its new Tourism and Civil Aviation Minster. Sudan Kirati has vowed quick action regarding the strengthening of air safety. For Prime Minister Prachanda who had to deal with this tragedy within less than a month of taking oath of the office, it will be a monumental task dealing with the anxiety and the suffering caused by this tragedy.
His government is faced with the immediate challenge of bringing a satisfactory closure to this disaster. The Sunday incident clearly shows an urgent need for drastic and sweeping improvements in the aviation sector in Nepal.
Despite Clear Weather, Why Yeti Crashed?
First, it must be asked how the Yeti aircraft met with the accident even when the weather condition was satisfactory. As per the Pokhara Air Traffic Control, while the ATR was descending, the visibility at the airport was seven km whereas even five km visibility is considered good enough for landing. Also, wind speed was 5.5 km per hour which could thus, not have been a major factor.
Even then the plane which was only 1800 meters away from the airport, crashed. This is the major point of concern and will be crucial for the investigation. International experts have opined that the plane stalled due to human error or some distraction in the cockpit may have led to miscalculations. The actual cause of the incident is still awaited.
A five-member team has been appointed by the Nepal government for carrying out an investigation but voices from the aviation sector and experts are suggesting that an independent international team should be invited to do a thorough investigation.
In the past, many government-led investigation reports have not yielded the desired results with the last one being the Tara air crash last year in Mustang that were not even disclosed to the public. It is widely being debated that just pointing at the weather conditions and human errors would not suffice to know the causes of repeated accidents as usually seen in the crash cases. This committee has the responsibility to bring out the truth and facts involving the accident without coming under any pressure from any institution or authority.
All About Yeti & EU Ban on Nepalese Airlines
Yeti airlines, established in 1998 along with its subsidiary Tara Air, formed one of the largest domestic airlines in Nepal. It was flying with six ATRs. But in its 24 years of operation, and of the 37 aircraft in its possession, 11 have met with accidents. Can this be natural?
It also raises the question if all domestic carriers have aircraft are in perfect condition to operate. Are the airlines following international regulations and do they meet the technical requirements? Or, are the airlines being irresponsible in their conduct and callous in attitude, thereby, compromising air safety? These questions need urgent answers. Following the Sunday incident, the government has asked for technical inspection of all aircraft in the domestic route. Within 24 hours, the airlines have reported no technical issues.
In addition, the Nepal Airlines has been included in the black list by European Union banning it from flying in its sky. This shows an institutional weakness in dealing with air safety and international regulations. The CAAN (Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal) is a highly politicised government agency carrying twin role of service-provider and policy formulator. An organisation like CAAN cannot be made a subject of narrow interest. The parliament and the government needs to pay attention to this at once.
How a Slew of Air Accidents Affect Nepal’s Tourism
The moot question is that of air safety regulations. All stakeholders must commit to making air travel safe and secure. The repeated air crash incidents have had a tough bearing on the tourism sector of Nepal, which is a backbone of its economy. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, Nepal’s travel and tourism sector pumped NRs 177 billion in to the economy and supported more than 4,27,000 jobs last year.
The Tourism sector contributes about three per cent to Nepal’s GDP. Yet the country has seen around 15 airplane crash incidents in 20 years. Some 900 lives have been lost. More number of people died in 1992 twin air crashes—an Airbus A300 operated by the Pakistan International Airline crashed while landing in Kathmandu airport killing all 167 people on board, and an Airbus 310 operated by Thai Airways crashed on its arrival in Kathmandu and killed all 99 passengers and 14 crew members on board.
Being a close neighbor, India can help Nepal mitigate some challenges in this sector. First, given the expertise, India must assist Nepal to deal with air safety challenges by providing the know-how and technical expertise. In addition, India can help the security agencies of Nepal in strengthening their emergency response strategies.
On Sunday, although the Nepali security agencies were mobilised within minutes of the accident, it took several hours to douse the fire and reach the core area to recover the bodies. Given the terrain and climate challenges, Nepal needs to doubly strengthen emergency relief and rescue mechanism and be equipped to deal with such cases. India can certainly be forthcoming in this regard. As the case is, five Indian nationals perished in the Sunday crash and many Indians lost lives in previous incidents of air crash in Nepal.
(Akanshya Shah is a Nepali journalist and researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)