Aviation has been one of the safest and most popular forms of transportation. However, in the context of Nepal, it can be called popular but can't really be trusted with safety. It is always a challenge for Nepal because it is a geographically complex country. Hills and mountains cover a large part of Nepal, and adverse weather and tough terrain often cause flying troubles. But is it fair to blame the geographical structure alone for the staggering 68 aviation-related accidents since 1955, 44 of them deadly and taking more than 900 lives? Well, when it comes to Nepal's skies, there are lots of factors that affect aviation.
Nepal is home to treacherous terrain and unpredictable weather, especially during the monsoons. That is why Nepal's aviation largely depends on a limited type of aircraft, such as Twin Otters, Let-L 410s, and Dorniers. Such planes need shorter takeoff and landing (STOL) airfields in high-terrain areas as opposed to the region with better airports where bigger aircraft can fly. Because of the unpredictable change in weather, domestic flights have to use visual flight rules (VFR), in which the pilot controls and navigates the plane using visual references from outside, which can result in a deadly crash if the pilot makes a little mistake with the navigation.
Nepal has some of the world's most remote and tricky runways. Tenzing-Hillary Airport, also known as Lukla Airport, is a domestic airport in the town of Lukla, in Khumbu Pasanglhamu, Solukhumbu district, the gate to Mt. Everest. The runway is 527 m (1,729 ft) by 30 m (98 ft) with an 11.7% gradient, and at the end of the runway lies the valley. Flying in such a risky area requires lots of training and practice.
Lukla Airport Runway
But is it always okay to blame the weather conditions and the geography of the country for more than 40 fatal crashes? What's the other side of Nepal's aviation industry that we are missing? Well, Nepal is a poor country where corruption is at its peak. We can say that corruption has reached the skies there because it is seen in the aviation industry as well. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) serves both as the service provider and regulator for the sector. This system allows the Director General of CAAN to issue tenders, put regulations in place, and oversee compliance—a clear conflict of interest. It is this, among other issues, that has led the EU to ban Nepali airlines from flying to Europe. The CAAN has consistently misused its authority to promote narrow business interests, and political parties have provided protection for airlines that do not meet safety and operating standards.
All the airlines that Nepal owns are second-hand, as it can't afford to buy the newest ones. But it doesn't mean that old aircraft are the ones to blame for accidents; poor management and a lack of supervision are the main causes. The parts of an aircraft should be routinely replaced at certified maintenance outlets, but Nepal's aviation industry fails to implement this.
The recent Yeti airline crash has put all the people choosing aviation as their mode of transportation in shock and has made them question choosing aviation to travel. The crash occurred just seconds before the plane was scheduled to land. A video widely circulated on social networks showed the plane at the time of the crash. It was flying at a low altitude before tilting abruptly to the left while the weather was visibly clear. A powerful explosion was then heard. Parts of the plane were found on fire at the bottom of a ravine 300 meters deep. The plane wasn't that old to kill all the passengers along with crew members. The ministry set up a committee for the investigation of the crash, which is an ongoing process. Sadly, people waiting for the report of the investigation have to keep waiting for too long. When we look at the past, it is never clear when the report will be published. The Nepali government has made it a formality rather than a fair investigation of such aircraft accidents. Team members in the investigation commission for Nepal's aircraft accidents are neither trained nor have received any special training on such issues. They do not have any close ties with relevant authorities, or, to put it more practically, they do not even follow the ICAO manual properly. It's a never-ending cycle: the government forms the commission for investigation, the commission does nothing, the public presses the government for the investigation, and the government holds a press conference just to calm people down, reporting that everything is in process, but in the end, it's just silent. Corruption and mismanagement have stopped people from getting justice.
Yeti Airlines Crash in Pokhara
It is really easy for the common people to judge the cause of any crash. According to their understanding, pilots are responsible for everything that happens to a flying plane. If a plane crashes, people will point their fingers at the pilot even though they have zero acknowledgment of the situation.
Flying, taking off, and landing in Nepal's aerospace is too dangerous, so the pilots are well-trained. Nepalese pilots may not have all the advanced technologies, but their skills are excellent. It's not the same with all the pilots. Recently, CAAN suspended three pilots of Nepal Airlines for violating aviation protocols. It is important to understand that operators hire the pilot, and these operators are overseen by CAAN, which authorizes their licenses. So, when we find faults in a pilot, we should know the fault is in the entire system, where everyone is connected. It is said that pilots who can land in Nepal can land at almost all the airports in the world. Pilots have to navigate themselves while landing because Nepal's airport lacks an instrument landing system (ILS).
Overall, Nepal's geography, weather, corruption, mismanagement, and lack of technology adversely affect airlines flying here. Nothing can be changed with the geography and weather, but responsible Nepali citizens and victims' families need the commitment to hold all levels of the corrupt mechanism in Nepal's aviation sector accountable for failing to ensure safety measures. The recent Yeti Airlines incident is a reminder that "Corruption Kills".