Will Reform of Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority Ever Take Off?

Will the reform of the Nepalese Civil Aviation Authority ever get off the ground?

Relatives of passengers of the missing Tara Air Twin Otter turboprop plane mourn outside the airport in Pokhara, Nepal, on May 29, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Yunish Gurung

On August 3, the UN aviation watchdog, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), formally I ask the government of Nepal to split the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) into two separate entities: a service provider and a regulator. Nepal necessary restructuring to ensure a “clear separation of authority between service providers, operators and the regulatory authority” in order to improve aviation safety, ICAO said.

In 2009, during an ICAO security audit, Nepal committed to working on legislation to split CAAN. Yet 13 years later, the proposed legislation remains in limbo.

Nepal has a poor aviation safety record. According to the Aviation Safety database, there have been 27 planes crash in Nepal in the last three decades, 20 of them in the last 10 years. In May 2022, a Tara Air plane it crashed in the mountainous Mustang district of Nepal, killing all 22 passengers and crew members, including six foreigners.

The European Commission (EC) imposed a blanket ban on Nepalese airlines entering European airspace in 2013 after eight British citizens were killed in a Sita Air plane crash in 2012.

The rugged mountainous terrain, lack of investment in new aircraft and poor infrastructure have contributed to dangerous air travel in Nepal. However, Nepal’s aviation governance structure also shares some of the blame.

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CAAN is both the service provider and the regulator in Nepal. That has created a conflict of interest, especially when it comes to safety standards.

This led the EC to insist that CAAN be split into two separate bodies before considering lifting the ban on Nepalese airlines. The EU ambassador, Nona Deprez, unequivocally fixed that passing the bills to split up CAAN is a “prerequisite” for Nepalese airlines to be removed from the “air safety list”.

Nepalese legislators recognize the need to split CAAN. Since 2007, successive governments have proposed plans put an end to the double functioning of the aviation regulator. Each government has expressed a commitment bilaterally (with the EU) and multilateral forums to split CAAN and urged the EC to revoke the ban. A subcommittee of the parliamentary International Relations Committee led by former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal even ordered the government to split CAAN, saying it was mandatory.

In addition to improving safety, CAAN’s restructuring has other tangible benefits for Nepal and Nepalese aviation.

Firstly, the EC is likely to remove Nepal from its “air safety list”, opening up European skies to Nepalese airlines. It would boost revenue for Nepal’s struggling national airline, Nepal Airlines. Nepal Airlines was unable to carry out charter flights to the EU during the COVID-19 rescue missions. As a result, the airline lost a large chunk of potential revenue, as well as hurting the government’s ability to rescue Nepalis stranded in European countries during the pandemic.

Second, a restructuring would give a boost to Nepal’s tourism industry. Around 15-20 percent of tourist arrivals in Nepal come from EU member countries. In 2019, almost a quarter of a million tourists from the EU visited Nepal. Nepal has announced a “decade visit to Nepal, 2023-2033” to revive the tourism sector. Without safe air services, the main mode of transport for incoming tourists, the decade of tourism cannot succeed. Nepal’s poor air safety record and the EU ban deterred many potential tourists from visiting Nepal. That would change if Nepal puts in place the necessary changes to make flights safe.

Ultimately, the issue provides a litmus test of the commitment and dedication of the Nepalese leadership. All governments since 2007 have committed and have “prioritized” the restructuring of CAAN, but none have complied.

On March 1 this year, the parliament secretariat placed two aviation bills, the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority Bill and the Nepal Air Services Authority Bill, on the agenda of the meeting of the House of Representatives scheduled for the following day. However, the then Minister of Civil Aviation, Prem Bahadur Ale, took a radical turn and required the secretariat of parliament to retain bills. Some employees of the aviation regulator opposed the planned restructuring, he said.

The bills have not made any headway in the House of Representatives since, although the National Assembly, Nepal’s upper house, I pass bills unanimously.

On July 31, Jeevan Ram Shrestha, who succeeded Ale as aviation minister, said that Nepal would not immediately accept EC status and that the CAAN would be restructured “as needed and at the right time”.

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analysts attribute the lack of progress in passing the bills to the vested interest of some officials and foreign airline operators. The existing system allows the CAAN Director General to issue tenders and monitor compliance while also issuing regulations governing the issuance of airline and crew licenses. These officials would not want to relinquish this power.

Meanwhile, other international airlines have gained market share and revenue at the expense of Nepalese airlines. Ale and Shrestha’s ramblings show the deep reach of such vested interests.

Going forward, the path for government could not have been easier. Yet vested interests have reigned supreme over the common sense measure for 15 years. Shrestha’s statement offers little hope for a change in the status quo.

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