Nepal Airlines pilots say notice was served to demand pay hike, not to resign

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) – In a Thursday notice, served to the executive chairman of the airline, a group of undersigned pilots had complained of huge differences in remuneration between them and expat pilots.

On Thursday, 22 Nepal Airlines pilots submitted a memorandum to the management warning to quit en masse if their concerns regarding a pay raise were not addressed.

But on Friday, four of them submitted separate letters informing the management that they had withdrawn the protest alleging a “misuse” of their signatures.

More pilots are likely to follow suit.

Two copies of the pilots’ subsequent letters, which were obtained by the Post, show that a number of pilots signed the memorandum to ask the management to review their pay—not resign en masse.

“But the issue was politicised,” one senior captain said in his Friday letter. “It was a valid complaint by the flying crew asking for a pay raise and I supported it accordingly. But our genuine demand was linked to other unnecessary propaganda.”

Another senior captain, who also withdrew from the agitation, wrote: “It was a memorandum intended for the management to raise our pay but it was published in the media stating that we have resigned en masse. My signature in the memorandum was to press the management to raise our pay, not for resignation.”

In a Thursday notice, served to the executive chairman of the airline, a group of undersigned pilots had complained of huge differences in remuneration between them and expat pilots. The airline currently does not have an executive chair, as Madan Kharel resigned on Sunday.

Deepu Raj Jwarchan, director at the airlines’ operation department, said that since Nepal Airlines has switched to Airbuses after flying Boeings for decades, it needs qualified and experienced pilots to fly the newly acquired planes.

“We have to hire expat pilots anyhow and they are paid for their expertise for a temporary period,” he said.

For instance, Nepal Airlines hired 9 foreign pilots when the corporation received two Airbus A320 jets in 2015.

“Now, we have only two foreign instructor pilots for the A320, and that’s because Nepali instructor pilots were upgraded to A330 jets,” said Jwarchan.

Nepal Airlines then purchased two more A330 jets and they arrived in 2018.

“Expat pilots are going to be expensive because they need to leave their families and countries to serve here,” said Jwarchan. “They are paid for their expertise but there is no reason to blow the issue out of proportion because they are only here temporarily.”

According to officials, the expat pilots’ pay ranges from $10,000 to $13,000 per month, depending on their experiences and qualifications.

“The management is happy to hire expensive expat pilots and pilots on contract basis on a much higher salary,” read the notice served by the disgruntled pilots. “Nothing has been done to replace such expensive pilots with its own in-house pilots or to increase the salary and benefits of its permanent pilots.”

Tourism Ministry Joint-secretary Buddhi Sagar Lamichhane, who sits on the board of Nepal Airlines, admitted that the pay for Nepali pilots was low and needed to be reviewed.

“But it’s not rational for Nepali pilots to complain that foreigners are getting higher pay,” he said. “It’s a compulsion to hire them.”

Disgruntled pilots have also objected to the airline management's recent move of deducting a “certain amount” from their monthly salary, besides applicable taxes, without any notice.

“The management knows that the remuneration offered by Nepal Airlines to its pilot is too low compared to that offered to pilots of any private domestic or international airlines in Nepal,” reads the notice signed by the dissenting pilots.

“Now, without any notice to the crew, an additional amount is being deducted [from our salaries] in the name of ‘staff advance’ though we have never taken any advance from the company.”

Jwarchan said that certain amount has been deducted from their gross pay because it was the arrears of the past years. The audit has pointed out that pilots who have been given “meal allowances” should pay 36 percent of tax from the allowance and accordingly it was deducted from their pay.

For example, in Malaysia pilots gets $160 per day as meal allowances and they get paid for three days. “The company doesn’t pay the income tax of any person.”

The pilots' warning may impact the airline’s operations, at a time when the beleaguered company had just started repaying its loans. The notice comes days after Nepal Airlines Executive Chairman Madan Kharel resigned.

A senior official at the airline, however, ruled out any big trouble, saying the pilots have just served a notice and that it's not a resignation letter.

"Since we don't have an executive chairman now, I can do nothing," Ganesh Bahadur Chand, deputy managing director at Nepal Airlines, told the Post.

Chand even alleged that the group of pilots that has served the notice is "just bargaining" for a raise. "But everyone knows the carrier's financial health is not that great," said Chand.

Nepal Airlines has 48 pilots flying on international routes, 33 fly the A320 jets and 15 fly the A330 jets. Besides, there are 13 foreign pilots, 11 flying A330 jets.

Nepal Airlines pilots' had their salary and allowances raised some two and a half years ago.

Senior pilots' allowance was hiked to Rs5,500 per hour [flying 45 hours to 75 hours a month] for international routes. They get Rs6,660 per hour if they fly above 75 hours. A co-pilot draws a gross Rs4,500 per hour.

Following the pay revision, a senior pilot flying international routes draws a gross monthly salary of Rs900,000, including the pay hike in last two years. A co-pilot draws Rs650,000 per month.