A red sun rose through the mist as a Twin Otter of Tara Air taxied out for takeoff at Nepalganj airport one morning this week. Inside, the seats were all folded up to fit 1.5 tons of cargo bound for Dolpo: cement, sacks of rice, a water tank with pipes and even a large steel cabinet.
Twenty minutes later, the plane was flying up the narrow Bheri Valley into shadows cast by towering mountains. A sharp right turn, wingtips skimming the icy slopes, and the plane landed on the gravel runway, braking dramatically in a cloud of dust. The only other way to get here is by weeks of walking.
But times are changing as new roads reach remote districts. Of the 20 mountain airfields west of Pokhara that used to be regularly served by air, only nine are in operation today (see map). Among those, only Dolpo, Jumla, Rara and Simikot have daily flights from Nepalganj or Surkhet. The rest have become pastures for cattle.
Ironically, while the volume of air traffic is falling, the government has invested in upgrading remote area airfields, lengthening runways and asphalting them. Jumla airport, which used to be the busiest in northwestern Nepal with up to 10 flights a day now gets only three.
“Jumla used to make up 80 per cent of our traffic among airfields in the western mountains, now it is less than 10 per cent,” says Umesh Rai, CEO of Yeti Airlines, “but you can’t stop progress, the people of Jumla want roads.”
Indeed, even though trunk routes have enough passengers the challenge for Nepal’s domestic airlines will be to diversify passenger profiles to remote airfields newly accessible by road, develop new tourist destinations with modern facilities and offer smoother and more reliable services.
Even Jomsom, which has a captive tourist and pilgrim market, suffered a drop in passenger volume after the road to Pokhara was completed. The map of Nepal is littered with airfields that are disused or have been abandoned: Doti, Sanfe, Dang, Baglung. Other airfields like Salle, Chaurjhari and Bajura are only serviced by state-owned Nepal Airlines once a week due to political pressure. By contrast, local politicals in Eastern Nepal are competing to build new airfields that no airline wants to fly to.
Dolpo used to be the trickiest airfield in Nepal, but a mountain has been sliced to make approach safer, the runway levelled and lengthened. The airfield will be closed for a month from next week as the runway is paved.
“The road is now one day’s walk away, and once it gets here people will prefer to take the bus,” predicts Krishna Chhetri, station manager here of Tara Air. Cargo by air costs Rs 85/kg to Nepalganj, while mules cost Rs 30/kg to the roadhead at Triveni, and it is only Rs 10/kg from there by pickup.
Dolpo gets sizeable tourist traffic during the trekking season, and with the premium fare of $160 one way to Nepalganj (compared to Rs 4,500 for Nepalis) the airfield will still see business. Simikot of Humla is the only other district capital without a road yet, and its recently upgraded airfield is busy, servicing 15 flights a day.
Rara airfield’s much-delayed improvement was completed recently just as the road arrived. Although a drop in flights is expected, Rara’s location could make it the gateway for Nepali and foreign tourists visiting the scenic lake.
“Tourism is the way forward for domestic aviation,” Rai told Nepali Times in an interview, “but airlines can only take you there, others need to followup with hotels, trails, tourism facilities.” Rara, for instance, could have direct flights from Pokhara too, but only has a rudimentary lodge with six rooms run by the National Park.
Which must be why Yeti Airlines is getting into the hotel industry, and developing chains of high-end lodges along trekking trails in Khumbu, Kaski and Mustang for premium tourism. With the earthquake fading from memory, and the blockade over there is cautious optimism in the industry about the future.
The other factor negatively impacting on domestic air travel was safety, and the EU’s blacklisting of all Nepali airlines. But even here, there is progress with Yeti Airlines and Tara Air recently getting the ISSA Certification from the IATA. However, even though fixed wing safety has improved, helicopter services are lagging behind.
“Air traffic to remote mountain destinations will pick up if the economy picks up,” explains Rai, “it is the classic gold fish bowl syndrome, the size of the fish is determined by the size of the economy.”
Nepal’s aviation safety record has been appalling with nine crashes involving more than 120 fatalities in the last ten years. The causes were pilot error with the plane hitting mountains in cloud, by overloading, or a combination of weather and mechanical issues.
Air safety investigators have cited lack of terrain awareness due to over-confidence or carelessness on the part of the crew as the reason for most of the crashes. Since some of the crashes were on tourist routes, the European Union blacklisted Nepal’s airlines in 2013, requiring travel agents to inform passengers and raising insurance premiums. The EU Air Safety Committee has kept Nepal on the blacklist despite a marked improvement in aviation safety in the past three years.
Last week, Yeti Airlines and Tara Air got the IATA Standard Safety Assessment (ISSA) certification, which is awarded to smaller operators after audits find that they comply with global safety standards.
Yeti’s CEO Umesh Rai credits private airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) jointly for making safety their number one priority, and hopes that this will go some way to mitigate the negative publicity.
“This certification was a recognition of our serious effort to improve safety, and can be like a torchbearer for other domestic airlines, and help to improve Nepal’s image,” he said.
One factor pushing airlines to get serious was that insurance premiums had doubled, making it unviable to operate in Nepal. Airlines hope that the ISSA certification will help get Nepal off the EU blacklist, and boost the industry.
Nepal is still in International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) list of countries with ‘significant safety concern’, and audits have shown that airport perimeter barriers, animals on runway, bird activity, and insufficient navigational aids need to be addressed. CAAN’s air traffic controllers are also much stricter than before in closing airfields if wind, visibility or en route weather deteriorate.
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