The fatal plane crash in Kathmandu, Nepal, has prompted a safety audit on all commercial aircraft operating in the country.
The Sita Air, Dornier 228 aircraft, which took off from Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport, was carrying trekkers and mountaineers bound for Lukla, gateway to Mount Everest.
All 19 on board perished. It was the sixth fatal air crash in Nepal since 24 August 2010 and the 55th since 1957. To date, 70 aircraft and 558 lives have been lost, raising grave questions of the mountain kingdom's civil aviation safety.
As to why it has taken the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) so long to initiate a safety audit, a spokesman for CAAN in Kathmandu, Sashi Tapa, was only willing to say that there was no need for one in the past. CAAN also plans to review all safety operating procedures of the 12 domestic airlines, mostly privately-owned. All operate with twin-engine turboprop aircraft.
Flag carrier Nepal Airlines, which operates domestic and a small network of international routes, is exempted from the safety audit. The company, which started operations in 1958, has been accident-free in recent years.
Tapa said CAAN will also investigate whether the airlines had carried out the mandatory competency checks on their pilots.
Airlines that have failed to adhere to the aircraft manufacturers’ maintenance schedules will be penalised and have their planes grounded.
Tapa denied that poor training of pilots, unqualified aviation inspectors, sub-standard aviation infrastructure and poor maintenance of aircraft have been overlooked by the authorities over the years. Alleged corruption and poor management within CAAN have been cited as weaknesses the government has also overlooked.
Many of the crashes have involved aircraft heading for Lukla Airport. This airport is located at an altitude of 2,860m and has a short runway above the valley with high terrain at one end and a steep drop at the other. It has a fence at the end of the runway to prevent aircraft from falling off the cliff should they overshoot the strip.
An aviation observer in Nepal, Suk Bahadur, said bad weather conditions caused by heavy rainfall, poor visibility and mountainous terrain make flying difficult. “Airlines need well trained and skilled pilots to fly in such hazardous conditions but this is lacking with most privately-owned airlines,” he commented.
Bahadur believes that the government has been too free in issuing air-operating certificates to private companies in the past.
The domestic market opened up in 2000 resulting in the start-up of several new carriers.
Nepal, with a population of 27.1 million, is one of the poorest countries in the world and has economic constraints when the need arises for investment on essential infrastructure.
In a recent development, initial findings into the September crash indicate that human error was the cause. According to a Ministry of Transport official the pilot did not maintain the aircraft’s safety altitude after it hit a bird but instead made a steep turn to return to Kathmandu.