The Pokahara air crash has raised questions about aviation safety. In this context, Sunita Karki of Annapurna Post spoke with Raj Kumar Chhetri, former Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN).
Can we term Nepali skies unsafe?
I would not consider the Nepali skies unsafe. Despite the unfortunate incident that happened on Sunday, it is important to note that we operate around 270-275 flights from Kathmandu every day. In my 33-year experience, I have not seen other countries with a difficult geographical situation like ours. A plane crashed eight months ago too. But that was due to inclement weather. In a mountainous country with weather conditions changing every 20 nautical miles, remote airfields and such, accidents may be more frequent than in other countries. Actually, accidents have gone down in comparison to the past.
What do you think are the causes?
In the past, a majority of air crashes in Nepal were caused by weather conditions. The country’s difficult geography (with high hills and all) as well as some human errors and technical issues are also behind these incidents. There were some weaknesses in our systems earlier. The regulatory body, Civil Aviation Authority Nepal (CAAN), has been working to improve safety and address these issues.
Additionally, airline companies are also adhering to safety requirements because a plane crash not only results in loss of life but also causes significant financial losses for the company. International organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the European Union also conduct safety checks. Furthermore, airlines themselves conduct safety audits regularly. Sometimes unfortunate events happen despite measures to improve air safety by reducing risks.
Are recommendations of air crash probe committees implemented?
In the past, there were issues with implementation of recommendations from probe committees formed after air crashes. The reports would gather dust, which is not the case today. The government, the Ministry of Tourism and the Civil Aviation Authority Nepal (CAAN) are aware of the importance of these probe committees and their findings. Unlike in the past, only experts are included in the committees these days. Concerned authorities, airline companies and international bodies tasked with addressing non-compliance take the suggestions coming from these committees seriously.
Nonetheless, it would be more effective to have a permanent mechanism for investigating air crashes instead of forming probe teams after every incident. Such a body should have the authority to conduct follow-ups on the implementation of recommendations and report instances of non-compliance. This would ensure a more comprehensive and consistent approach to improving safety and would make aviation safer in the long run.
Do probe panels blaming human error for air accidents mean that Nepali pilots are not skilled?
In the past, human error was often cited as the cause of air accidents because it was easier to blame someone who is not alive. However, this is no longer the case. Nepali pilots are flying in a challenging topography and they are highly skilled and capable, as capable as pilots in any other country.
What policies and rules are needed to improve flight safety in Nepal?
One key step that should be taken to improve flight safety in Nepal is to unbundle the CAAN into a regulatory agency and a service agency. This would ensure that the regulatory and service functions are separate and that there is no conflict of interest. Additionally, there should be a provision that prohibits inter-agency transfers as they can hinder the performance of employees. People should be appointed on the basis of their skills and past performance. Furthermore, the government should provide all necessary resources and equipment to airports to improve their safety. Airports not handling flights should be closed.