The above title summarizes the current status of Nepal Airlines (RA). And despite its mediocre showing, it gets repeatedly touted as the ‘flag carrier’, as if it was a robust airline. A flag carrier is often taken as an airline that is accorded preferential rights or privileges to operate internationally by the owning country. It is an old concept as big countries have many, not just one, flying internationally and airlines are more likely to be privately owned these days. The government indeed had a role in supporting aviation during the early years given the investment required as the private sector lacked both the capital and expertise. Besides, for rich and colonial countries airlines offered the most visible way to show off their world domination.
Early years, aircraft did neither fly high nor went too far. Pressurization became essential only when aircraft had to fly high to fly faster and go further. On being, thus capable de Havilland DH.106 Comet, became the world's first-ever passenger jetliner. But it had a very inauspicious beginning, with six accidents, in the first 21 months of operation. The first three hull losses had accumulated a total of eighty-nine fatalities. Naturally, the public got increasingly concerned about the safety of traveling in a jetliner. It was doubly devastating that a British make jet flown by a British airline (BOAC)had suffered thus. The government then decided to make a very elaborate and extensive investigation to get to the root. And the BOAC donated the entire wreckage of the 10 Jan ’54 crash for the purpose.
It was found that the failure was a result of metal fatigue caused by the repeated pressurization and depressurization of the cabin. The problem was exacerbated by the punch rivet construction technique employed in making. Unlike drill riveting, the imperfect or jagged hole created by punching may have caused the start of fatigue cracks around the rivet. And the fuselage had rivet holes all over and it had been flying, all along, with tens of thousands of silently ticking time bombs.
Aircraft’s propulsion system consists of an engine, maneuverability is provided by flaps/rudder/aileron, etc and avionics help runs various navigational gadgets and the flight management system (FMS) computer. And all critical systems have solid backups for unforeseen eventualities. But aircraft do also fly with unresolved flaws, but only when the approved minimum equipment listing (MEL) is not compromised. Needless to say, they do not fly with faulty cabin pressurization systems nor with faulty toilets, just to name two. That said, the reliability of any “scheduled airline” hinges on the size of its operational fleet such that it can keep to the schedule at any cost.
For any passenger, the biggest issue with RA, the “flag carrier” is its unreliability. Those holding RA tickets cannot be sure if the aircraft will fly on time or if it will fly at all. It is worse if you hold a normal economy ticket and get stuck in some other airport away from home. The reason RA is so unreliable is that it has a tiny fleet. So long as all its four jets are in flying condition, it is reasonably so-so. But one cannot foresee what happens to the next flight. One flies for a reason, certainly not for pleasure. Being on time counts as people with various important engagements fly as close to the date as possible.
RA is seen to be having frequent engine-related issues concerning its A320s. I have noticed at least two occasions in which its A320s were grounded for around 40/45 days. The logical question would be; why does it take so long for RA to make those fly sooner? Or is it normally so for other airlines in our neighborhood too? No airline, anywhere, would keep their aircraft grounded for so long. An aircraft makes money only while flying, it bleeds money when grounded. But if quick fixing was not possible, it should have leased or taken on a short-time loan from another friendly airline. There must be a system, for smaller carriers, to have contracts with leasing companies so that they make a spare engine available as and when required. Next best would be to have a contract with appropriate maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) companies to take care of such eventualities around the year.
Surely, all airlines will be facing such issues regularly and the flying public hardly ever notices this because a backup frame is quickly made available. Agreed, RA does not have that luxury of fleet strength nor it can justify increasing fleet strength to overcome this. But it surely can keep, at least, one engine each for narrow and wide body as spare.
I am sure RA has plenty of issues, on all fronts, that have remained unresolved for a long. Surely, identifying problems with RA would be in no way as arduous and elusive compared to what went into identifying that bedeviled Comet, as we saw. As such, we have had many task forces formed to identify the issues and suggested ways forward to improve its state of affairs. But still, nothing seems to be happening. It is all in the open and yet its performance is well below par. Unless decision-makers resolve to make an earnest attempt to make RA fly higher and further, so that people can fly with trust and pride, all we can do from our side is to sigh with (आकाशभैरबसरणम्)Aakash bhairab saranam,
Hemant Arjyal can be reached at email@example.com