Civil aviation boss hauled up over Yeti Airlines crash

The Tourism Ministry has accused the civil aviation regulator of neglect resulting in the crash of Yeti Airlines Flight 691 last January. The ATR 72 plunged to the ground while coming in to land at newly opened Pokhara International Airport, killing all 72 persons on board.

At that time, experts had demanded a criminal investigation alleging that a serious crime and mass murder had taken place.

On Monday, Pradeep Adhikari, director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal, was hauled up by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation and told to submit an explanation over the disaster.

“Adhikari has been asked to furnish clarification on nine points,” said Rajendra Kumar KC, spokesman for the ministry. “We have given him seven days to do so.”

The nine-point clarification note, which has gone viral, states that the director general’s actions violated government policy. He has been charged with misusing his position and failing in his duty.

The ministry has accused the director general of consistently failing to ensure aviation safety as there have been five aircraft incidents and accidents on his watch, including two major disasters.

“As serious incidents and accidents continue to happen, the country is suffering losses, and serious questions are being raised about Nepal’s aviation safety. As an accountable executive for the state safety programme, why shouldn’t we charge you that you failed to fulfil your responsibility to make aviation safety effective?” the note stated.

“Without receiving the final report of the flight calibration and without completing all the preliminary preparations for the operation of the international airport, including the flight safety assessment, why did the test flight of the airport take place without receiving the report?” the note stated.

Adhikari has been asked to explain why he allowed a Himalaya Airlines Airbus A320 to land under visual flight rules at Pokhara International Airport during its inauguration on January 1, even though the airport had not been tested.

“As the head of the regulatory body, why and how did you conduct such an extremely negligent act that adversely affects flight safety?” the note said.

Adhikari had planned to fly the prime minister on the Airbus on a test flight.

Experts had raised a serious question stating that with the prime minister on board, the flight would have been a blunder, a crime. This was prevented by Himalaya Airlines Vice-President Vijay Shrestha who “refused to fly the prime minister”.

It has been revealed that this was not the first case of neglect.

The civil aviation body, which currently wears two hats—as regulator and service provider—had flown dozens of journalists, government officials and other dignitaries on a test flight during the opening of the Bhairahawa airport on May 16, 2022. It later described the trip as a “demo flight”.

Several unnamed experts told the Post that the civil aviation body has been misusing its authority, but no one wants to speak against it for fear of retribution.

The new international airport in Pokhara was hastily inaugurated and operated without adequate preparations to meet the January 1 project deadline.

Flight calibration, which tests all pieces of equipment at the new airport, had not recommended landing from the west. Yeti Airlines Flight 691 crashed while trying to do so.

The flight procedure had not been published, and airlines had very little information about airport procedures and data.

An evaluation as required by the “safety management system” was not carried out, neither by the civil aviation regulator, as service provider, nor by the airlines,” according to a former chief of the civil aviation body.

Russian lawyer David Kukhalashvili, representing the interests of the family of one of the Russian passengers who was killed in the Yeti Airlines crash, wrote to the Post that they were preparing to file a case, together with leading US and EU-based law firms, with the French court against the ATR 72 manufacturer, Yeti Airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.

Kukhalashvili has won a similar case relating to an ATR 72 crash in Russia in 2012.

“The families have the right to get more compensation by filing the claim in the French court. By filing the claim to the French court there will be a possibility to recover for them much more compensation. This is what we are going to do with regard to the families of Russian passengers,” he wrote to the Post. “I want to bring this info to the Nepali families, they can also join our class action claim.”

According to an official at the Tourism Ministry, the Russian lawyers have asked for the necessary documents through the Foreign Ministry.

Questions about Nepal’s aviation have been raised for decades as the civil aviation body has been performing a dual role.

Global aviation watchdogs have questioned the civil aviation body’s dual role and urged Nepal to split the organisation into two entities—service provider and regulator—to enhance the safety of flyers.

But the government has shown no interest in doing so, and Nepal’s aviation industry is suffering the consequences.

Ministry officials say that Director General Adhikari has been speaking at various forums against the government’s decision to split the aviation regulatory body, which is one of the conditions for Nepal to be struck off the air safety list.

Sources say Adhikari has been forcing former director generals of the civil aviation body, aviation experts and media persons to lobby not to break up the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal.

In the clarification note, the ministry has accused Adhikari of not only flouting the policy of the government of Nepal but even challenging it.

Speaking at an event in Pokhara last year, Adhikari had said that he was the “state” and his decision would be final.

A Tourism Ministry official told the Post that Tourism Minister Sudan Kiranti has taken the initiative to register in Parliament the civil aviation bills that will separate the civil aviation body after his predecessors—Prem Ale and Jeevan Ram Shrestha—showed no interest in getting them passed. The bill was tabled at the Cabinet two weeks ago but it hasn’t been passed.

The Cabinet is expected to pass the bills on Tuesday, according to Tourism Ministry officials.

An official at the civil aviation body told the Post that in-house trade unions were preparing to launch a protest against the government’s move to pass the bills.

“They are ready to hold a protest as soon as the bills are registered in Parliament,” said an official at the civil aviation body.

The Post has obtained an unsigned copy of the statement made two weeks ago which contains the plan of the five trade unions to launch the protest. In the statement, the unions have referred to the government as the “mafia”.

Last August, in the final report of the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP) conducted in April of the same year, the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) urged Nepal to break up the aviation regulator with a clear demarcation of its powers and responsibilities because its dual functions gave rise to a conflict of interest.

The Post has obtained a copy of the audit. The civil aviation body is yet to make the audit public though.

Insiders say there is larger politics to prevent the bills from being passed into law. They say that once the civil aviation body is separated, some top position holders stand to lose the dual benefits they have been receiving.

The existing system allows the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal’s director general and other top officials to issue tenders for multi-billion dollar projects. The same person also has the plum job of overseeing compliance with the infrastructure project and the aviation regulations governing the issuance of licences to airlines and crews.

In the clarification note, the ministry has charged Adhikari with failing to operate the two international airports in Pokhara and Bhairahawa. The multi-billion-rupee properties don’t handle a single international flight.

Adhikari, according to his staff, is assertive.

On October 30, 2022, the regulator cancelled the scheduled flight of Nepal Airlines to Delhi as punishment for defying instructions to move some of its international services to Bhairahawa’s empty airport.

Nepal Airlines’ jet remained on the ground, and more than 500 passengers suffered as a result of the last-minute cancellation.

“He has been grounding flights and pilots who report the problems. That’s a bad safety culture as it will discourage the crew from reporting against the regulator and force them to take undue risk for fear of being grounded,” said a top official at a private airline.

The ministry has also questioned the intent of the director general to lop off the tops of two hills at Ritthepani in Pokhara by 40 and 12 metres respectively while lowering the height of the runway.

“The height of the runway had to be cut, causing a financial loss to the country. It is seen that it will have an adverse effect on air safety. Why was such an action undertaken?” the note said.

Responding to the Post’s query, Adhikari said he would follow the legal process on the clarification sought by the ministry.  

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