Nepal Airlines has been prevented from carrying out rescue flights for European and North American tourists stranded in Kathmandu by the COVID-19 lockdown, and one of the reasons is that the carrier is still on a EU no-fly list.
In nearly a month since the Nepal government clamped a lockdown on 25 March and stopped regular flights from Kathmandu airport, there have been 32 international charters to take stranded foreigners home. Only three of them have been by Nepal Airlines.
A dozen international airlines have airlifted nearly 5,000 expats and tourists from Kathmandu in the past three weeks, with Qatar Airways performing a dozen charters for European, Canadian, American and Australian tourists.
Aussies and Kiwis homeward bound from Nepal, Lisa Choegyal
Nepal Airlines to fly stranded Australian tourists to Sydney
Nepal Airlines has flown Japanese tourists to Narita, Australian and New Zealanders to Brisbane via Kuala Lumpur, and Brazilian tourists to New Delhi. But it could not ferry British tourists back from Nepal, partly because of the EU ban, diplomatic sources said.
Although Britain is exiting the EU, the plane would still have to overfly Europe, and a possible rescue flight for Canadians could not happen because Nepal Airlines would need a Europe refuelling stopover.
“It is really absurd that despite the fact that we have four brand new Airbus aircraft, our pilots are trained in Toulouse, the planes are maintained as per Airbus protocols, and we have flown to Australia and Japan. Yet, despite this global emergency the EU still blacklists us,” complained a Nepal Airlines source.
The European Union and the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) blacklisted Nepal-based airlines in December 2013 after a safety audit following a series of crashes, including a Lukla-bound Sita Air Dornier 228 crash near Kathmandu airport in 2012 that killed 19 people, including seven Britons. That was the third crash in a year, after a Buddha Air Everest sightseeing flight crash and a deadly Agni Air accident in Jomsom.
After a safety inspection in 2017, ICAO removed Nepal from its list of countries with Significant Safety Concern and suggested reforms. However, the EU kept Nepal on the blanket ban citing regulatory and safety concerns. Another safety audit in 2018 concluded that despite ‘some limited progress … the ratio of accidents in Nepal continued to be unacceptably high’.
Although Nepal’s aviation safety record has improved in the past three years, the EU has demanded that the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) be unbundled so that its regulatory and service functions are separated. CAAN also manages Nepal’s airports. Last year, the Cabinet instructed the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation to draft a law and present it to Parliament for debate.
The EU has also expressed concern about frequent helicopter accidents, but aviation sources say this has more to do with Nepal’s challenging mountain terrain than maintenance or crew training problems.
Another Nepal Airlines source acknowledged that the EU blacklist may have been an issue, but added: “We could have used diplomatic channels to have got a one-time waiver for the ferry flights, but that would have taken time and our flights were also more expensive compared to budget airline charters.”
However, Qatar Airways tickets to the US, Canada and Australia last week were not cheap either because the planes had to operate empty positioning flights into Kathmandu to airlift passengers. Besides Qatar, three rescue charters were operated by Titan Airways to take British nationals to Stansted via Dubai, Korean Air, Etihad, Malindo Air, Czech Airlines. Malaysian Airlines took stranded Dutch tourists to Kuala Lumpur where it had a collection point for nationals stranded in southeast Asia.
This week, Druk Air flew out a Bhutanese actress stranded in Nepal after shooting a film, and Air Arabia operated a charter on Friday to take back Emirati nationals from Kathmandu. Nepal’s domestic airline Shree Air has also conducted a flight to Khartoum to bring back the body of a Nepal Army officer who died of a heart attack, and the airline is also flying to Singapore to bring donated medical equipment.
Besides these, Nepal Airlines has also operated four Airbus330 charters to Guangzhou to bring medical equipment, and a few domestic charters to fly swab samples and COVID-19 test kits to and from Kathmandu mainly to western Nepal. These flights are now being done by Nepal Army aircraft. In addition, Tara Air is flying emergency food to Humla, Rara and Simikot.
CAAN Spokesman Rajkumar Chhetri played down the EU blacklist as the reason why Nepal Airlines has not been able to conduct more international ferry flights.
“The charters were coordinated by various embassies in Kathmandu, and they have selected the carriers based on various criteria,” he said, “no one has said Nepal Airlines could not fly because of the EU ban. After all, it was allowed to conduct charter flights to Australia and Japan.”