Nepal’s private airlines on Friday criticised the government for not establishing an independent aircraft accident investigation body as part of its international obligations to improve aviation safety and prevent accidents in the future.
The independent agency will probe accidents and incidents and recommend ways to prevent them in the future, and improve aviation services by identifying causative factors.
In September 2016, a meeting of the Asia Pacific Accident Investigation Group in Tokyo, Japan advised its member states to form an independent investigation unit as per Amendment 15 to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Annex 13.
ICAO had urged its contracting states, including Nepal, to constitute a separate authority to investigate air accidents or serious incidents involving public air transport by November 10, 2016.
This authority must be independent of any entity whose interests could conflict with or influence the safety investigation authority’s task. The sole objective of accident investigation is to prevent future accidents and incidents.
The current practice in Nepal is to form an ad hoc investigation committee immediately after an accident, but the reports produced by such government panels are often criticised for hiding shortcomings.
“The committees in Nepal are made on an ad-hoc basis after an accident and they usually get terminated after a certain time,” said Manoj Karki, secretary of the Airline Operators Association of Nepal.
“Because of this, the committees lack institutional memory which hinders the improvement of safety standards over time.”
There are eight critical elements that ICAO considers essential for a state to establish, implement and maintain in order to have an effective air safety system.
They are—primary legislation; organisation and safety oversight functions; personnel licensing; aircraft operations; airworthiness of aircraft; aerodromes; air navigation system; and accident and incident investigation.
Out of the eight critical elements, accident and incident investigation comes under the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Ministry, as it is responsible for monitoring developments in accident investigation techniques and practices as well as accident prevention matters.
In the safety audit report produced by ICAO in 2022, Nepal performed poorly in three areas—legislation, organisation and accident, and incident investigations. The effective implementation scores of all these three key elements are below the global average.
The worst performance was observed in accident and incident investigations.
Nepal’s effective implementation score on accident and incident investigation was just 21.68 percent—slightly above the previous score of 15.49 percent, but way below the global average of 54.82 percent.
Nepal has been investigating incidents and accidents by forming a commission mostly headed by former directors general and secretaries at the Tourism Ministry. The audit has pointed out that investigation requires “trained manpower”.
Private airline operators on Friday demanded that the government create an autonomous investigation commission that will work round the year and guide airlines to improve safety standards.
“We have urged the government to make an independent commission that would work round the year for flight safety,” said Karki.
The operators also complained that they haven’t received enough support from government bodies for the improvement of flight safety.
Rameshwor Thapa, president of the Airlines Operators Association of Nepal (AOAN), said that airline operators have been paying $10 per flight to the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology for weather information.
“But we are only provided with weather forecasts for airports. We don’t get forecasts about the weather en route. Everyone knows that Nepal’s weather conditions are unpredictable,” said Thapa.
Nepal’s domestic airlines—nine fixed-wing operators and 12 helicopter operators—flew 4.46 million passengers in 2022. If the claim of AOAN is considered, the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology earns Rs14.17 million in annual revenue from the operators to access weather data.
Some airlines like Buddha Air buy a “weather news” system from a Japanese company by paying $12,000 annually.
“We airline operators have to rely on the weather information sent in by our employees at every station, who might not be an expert in forecasting,” said Thapa.
Helicopters fly in remote areas after getting weather information from local tea shops and restaurants.
Nepal’s safety situation has become alarming amid the spate of air crashes and accidents.
“The AOAN has confronted the civil aviation regulator against this backdrop,” a private airline official said.
On Friday, the AOAN announced the formation of a committee to prepare a report to improve flight safety.
The committee—which comprises Yagna Prasad Gautam, former director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal; Captain Ravi Kansakar; Captain Hira Babu Dahal; Engineer MK Shrestha and Engineer SS Dangol—has been given 30 days to submit its report.
“The report is expected to provide effective recommendations to implement the ‘zero accident, zero fatality’ goal,” said Thapa, who is chairman of Simrik Air.
Experts say it’s a sign of a cold war that has erupted between the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal and private operators.
“How can private operators prepare a safety report and implement it by themselves?” questioned one expert privy to the matter. “This shows lack of confidence of private air operators in the state’s aviation regulator.”
Multiple sources told the Post that the civil aviation regular has been promoting a “punitive” reporting culture.
Normally, reporting systems are designed to identify problems and issues so changes can be made to improve safety. However, a culture of blame discourages event reporting, and reporting seen as punitive can inhibit individual and system performance in safety.
“Punitive reports have important implications for reporting systems because they may reflect a culture of blame and a failure to recognise system influences on behaviours,” said an aviation expert. “Reporting systems should focus on outcomes and learning from systems issues, not blaming individuals.”
What the civil aviation body has been doing is grounding pilots who file a report. “That’s serious,” said one of the domestic airline chiefs.
Pilots and airline executives say that the crash of the Manang Air chopper at Lamjura of Likhupike Rural Municipality in Solukhumbu district on July 11, killing all six people aboard, was due to the “punitive reporting” culture.
The helicopter pilot had to meet the daily aircraft inspection deadline or face grounding, and he was forced to fly despite the bad weather. When the pilot missed the daily inspection deadline previously, he had been grounded.
“The pilot may have feared that he would be grounded again, and decided to take the risk,” said an aviation expert.