Chinese airlines have 48 weekly flights to Nepal but Nepal Airlines hasn’t even acquired a permit for Guangzhou

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - All airlines are required to undergo a safety audit when flying to a new region, but a Chinese audit has been delayed three times, with no guarantee it will happen anytime soon.

Aspiring trans-Himalayan flight operator Nepal Airlines is still waiting for the green light from the Chinese civil aviation authority even as a newcomer—private carrier Himalaya Airlines—began services to Beijing on October 27.

Nepal Airlines had applied to Chinese authorities to fly the Kathmandu-Guangzhou route in 2015, but the national flag carrier has not yet received permission because of a pending safety audit to gain access to Chinese airports.

On Wednesday, Nepal Airlines said that a planned safety audit by the Civil Aviation Administration of China had once again been postponed to December. The audit had been initially slated for September, but it was pushed to October and then to November. It has again been pushed back by a month.

“This is not because we were not prepared for the audit. The Chinese authority did not send its audit team,” said Madan Kharel, executive chairman of Nepal Airlines on Wednesday. “We have now postponed our planned Guangzhou flight to March.”

According to tourism officials and entrepreneurs, China is poised to become one of the largest tourist markets for Nepal. With Visit Nepal 2020 coming up, China will be a “vital market” for Nepal, with at least 350,000 arrivals expected from the northern neighbour, according to Deepak Raj Joshi, chief executive officer of the Nepal Tourism Board.

However, without a safety audit, Nepal Airlines will lose out on this lucrative route, which Himalaya Airlines is already flying. And it is still uncertain whether the safety audit will even take place in December.

“We don’t have a confirmed date in December,” said Ganesh Bahadur Chand, spokesperson for Nepal Airlines. “We don’t know the exact reason for the repeated postponement of the audit.”

According to a senior Nepal Airlines captain, the Chinese regulator had named three auditors, but they were from different Chinese states and were busy in other areas; Nepal was not on their priority list.

Chinese authorities have also rejected Nepal Airlines’ application to fly to Beijing's spanking new Daxing International Airport, which opened for business in September, “because we haven’t conducted the audit,” said Chand.

The audit is a regular process conducted by any country’s aviation regulator before allowing new carriers to fly to its airports.

Nepal Airlines had applied to fly to China in 2015, when it had only two vintage Boeing 757s in its long-haul fleet, expecting to obtain new Airbus aircraft before the permit came through. Four years later, the carrier has two Airbus A320s and as many Airbus A330s in its international fleet, but the permit hasn’t come through because the safety audit hasn’t happened yet.

Chinese authorities placed Nepal Airlines' application on hold, arguing that there was no slot at Guangzhou airport, and that they would have to wait for the under-construction airport in Beijing to be completed, according to airline officials.

The national flag carrier used to operate a service to Osaka, Japan via Shanghai until 2008 under fifth freedom rights, which allow an airline to carry passengers from one's own country to a second country and onwards to a third country without a permit.

After first revising its air service agreement with Nepal in 2014, half a dozen Chinese airlines now have regular flights to Nepal, with the frequency increased to 48 weekly flights from 14 weekly flights. Currently, six Chinese carriers—Air China, China Southern, China Eastern, Sichuan Airlines, Cathay Dragon and Tibet Airlines—operate flights to Nepal.

With so many Chinese flights to Nepal and Himalaya Airlines now providing services to Beijing, many are questioning why it has taken Nepal Airlines so long to obtain a permit, when it managed to obtain one to fly to Osaka.

“As Nepal Airlines had not purchased new planes for nearly three decades, it seems it did not know that it needs to undergo a safety audit every time it flies to a new sector,” said an official from the safety department of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media. “The national flag carrier had a number of safety issues, but due to management tussles and scams, it did not take them seriously.”

However, Deepu Jwarchan, director at the operation department of Nepal Airlines, said that almost all safety issues had been resolved by 2017 and that ones that remain are not too serious.

It was only this year, before starting flights to Japan, that Nepal Airlines set up an integrated operation control centre at Kathmandu airport, a mandatory safety requirement under the International Civil Aviation Organisation. The control centre is able to monitor Nepal Airlines aircraft round the clock in any territory. The airline has also set up a crisis management centre under its emergency response plan.

“Nepal Airlines became confident enough to invite the audit team after it hired a safety expert from Airbus,” said the official from the safety department. An internal audit conducted by the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal shows that Nepal Airlines' safety progress is at level 2, which means there are some deficiencies but they can be resolved. On Monday, the aviation regulator had invited Nepal Airlines representatives to draw up a timetable to address safety deficiencies.

“We still have around 40 deficiencies, and we are working on them,” said Jwarchan.

Last year, Nepal Airlines had planned to conduct direct flights to Seoul, but the plan failed after the South Korean authorities wrote to the Nepal government that it would be sending an audit team for a safety check to determine whether the corporation meets international standards to fly to Incheon International Airport, one of the largest and busiest airports in the world.

The South Korean government had formed an audit team led by Cho Donghyun, assistant director of the flight standards division at the South Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, to conduct the audit of Nepal’s national flag carrier. A year later, Nepal shows no signs of inviting the South Korean audit team to assess Nepal Airlines.

According to officials, the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal had advised the national flag carrier to not invite the team immediately as preparations were inadequate to satisfy auditors.