Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) has decided to ground two types of Chinese made aircraft, the 17-seater Y12e and the 56-seater MA6 from July 16 suspecting engine underperformance.
Shortage of trained pilots to fly the Chinese aircraft is being cited as another reason for the grounding.
Achyut Pahari, a NAC board member told Kathmandu Post that the planes were not fit for the Nepali skies and that they was brought forcefully through a government-to-government deal. “The decision (to ground the planes) was made two weeks ago. The corporation cannot afford to fly them anymore.”
The flight suspension comes even as an investigation is pending into a March 28 incident involving an Y12e aircraft of Nepal Airlines which landed some 60 meters short of the runway at Nepalgunj airport and skidded before halting in the nearby grassland.
The pilot undershot the runway as he was landing one engine after having lost power in another. Weeks after the incident, the flight captain KB Limbu was suspended for “faulty judgement,” according to a preliminary report by the civil aviation regulator, Kathandu Post reported.
“It’s too early to judge the performance of the plane without a comprehensive assessment, but we cannot ignore the facts related to its performance. At Nepalgunj airport the runway is of sufficient length, but (still) the 9N-AKU was unable to make a smooth landing with one engine. The situation at short take-off and landing airfields, particularly in the remote mountains, could have been different,” an aviation expert was quoted as saying by the Post.
The Nepal Airlines decision comes six years after the first batch of six aircraft joined the fleet, the first acquisition by Nepal Airlines in 28 years. Of the two MA60s in the national flag carrier's fleet, one has been grounded for nearly three years, mainly due to pilots shortage.
Recalling the sequence of events that led to the aircraft purchase, the Post said:
In November 2011, a technical team of Nepal Airlines visited China to inspect the aircraft after the Finance Ministry asked the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu if it would be interested in providing planes to Nepal in grants. The Chinese government said that Nepal would have to buy a number of aircraft if it wanted “some for free”. At that time, two teams—one each from Nepal and Bangladesh—had gone to China to examine the planes.
“The Bangladeshi team reported back to their government that the plane was not suitable for their country, but the Nepali experts said that it was fine for Nepal. The government then began the process to buy Chinese planes based on the experts' advice,” said a retired Nepal Airlines official.
Pahari says it was the worst decision on the part of the national flag carrier. “It was prompted by greed for commissions. They submitted a fabricated report. The Y12e was compared with the Twin Otter, and the MA60 was compared with the ATR-72,” said Pahari. “Nepal Airlines is paying the price now. Flying these planes means throwing good money after bad.”
In November 2012, Nepal Airlines signed a commercial agreement with Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a Chinese government undertaking, to procure six aircraft—two 56-seater MA60s and four 17-seater Y12es.
As part of the deal, China provided one MA60 and one Y12e worth Rs2.94 billion as gift in 2014. The other aircraft were bought for Rs3.72 billion with a soft loan provided by China’s EXIM Bank.
In 2014, one 17-seater Y12e aircraft and one 58-seater MA60 arrived in Kathmandu, and in a foreshadowing of what the new era would look like, they never took to the air.
Nepal Airlines Corporation did not have any pilots trained to fly the Chinese aircraft. Six years later, there is still nobody to fly them. “When you buy planes, you should have a proper plan. In Nepal Airlines' case, it seems to be the standard practice to get the planes first and find the pilots to fly them later,” Sanjiv Gautam, former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal was quoted as saying.
“It’s not a problem with the aircraft, it's a managerial problem,” Gautam told the Post. “In the last six years, it has not produced any captains, and those who were promoted to captain have been transferred to fly Airbus jets in the same company.”