Nepal’s sky has become much safer: Gautam
Sanjiv Gautam is the Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN). Having joined the Department of Civil Aviation 27 years ago, Gautam has worked in different sections in different capacities. An MBA and MPA, he also participates as a speaker, panelist and moderator at regional and global conferences related to aviation safety and air navigation. The energetic and visionary CAAN’s chief has remained dedicated to improving the country’s civil aviation sector.
Ballav Dahal of The Rising Nepal Friday caught up with CAAN’s DG Gautam to talk about a wide range of issues related to Nepal’s civil aviation sector, including the recent crash of a US-Bangla Air aircraft at a corner of the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) and various air safety measures adopted by the civil aviation facilitating and regulatory body. Excerpts:
At a time when there are rumours that Nepal’s air safety is not so good, a US-Bangla Air aircraft just crashed at the TIA, leaving 49 people dead and the remaining 22 injured. How have you taken this incident?
Nobody wants any accident to take place. But either man or machine or environment is responsible for an air crash. Of these three, the human factor contributes more than 80 per cent to such accidents. There is a possibility of air crashes even when the machines (aircraft equipment and navigation instruments) are good if men like pilots, other crew members and Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) are not efficient and compliant. It is humans who can avoid crashes even if the machines are not good. Circumstances and biological factors, such as exhaustion and irritation, may have an adverse impact on human performances.
The runway at the TIA is simple. It does not have a double or cross runway. So, there is no confusion in the configuration of the runway. However, it would be immature on our part to analyse the cause of that air crash as a probe panel has started its task.
In recent years, Nepal has witnessed a significant drop in the number of domestic air accidents. What measures has CAAN taken in this connection?
It is true that Nepal’s sky has become much safer over the years. When the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) conducted its air safety audit in 2009 in the country, the compliance of international standards stood at only 43 per cent. We continued to make improvements in the areas of regulation and training. But the country witnessed six air accidents during the period between 2010 and 2012. Five of them were fatal.
In 2013, ICAO carried out its audit and expressed serious concern over the Air Operating Certificate (AOC) issue. In line with the global aviation agency’s call, we tightened the AOC issuance procedures. We focussed on regulation, training for pilots and checking their proficiency. Airlines also became more proactive to improve air safety because they felt that air accidents hit their business. They have also increased their investment.
However, the European Union (EU) included Nepal in its air safety list in December 2013, imposing a ban on Nepali carriers from flying into Europe.
From 2013 to 2017, we left no stone unturned to implement ICAO’s recommendations and the European Commission’s (EC) observations. We also forced the airlines to comply with the observations made by the Cooperative Development of Operational Safety and Continuing Airworthiness Programme-South Asia (COSCAP-SA).
In July last year, ICAO validated the improvement made by Nepal in regard with the AOC issue. As we secured effective compliance of the ICAO Standards (66 per cent), we were removed from its Significant Safety Concern (SSC). The improved regulations, training for pilots and surveillance were key to reducing air accidents significantly. The ICAO assessment was based on its report between the period of February 2014-February 2017. It includes only aircraft (above 5,700 kg weight) operating scheduled and passenger flights.
We are laying much focus on the human factor by bringing about changes in the behaviour of crew members and ACTs at a particular point of time in order to ensure air safety. They should be encouraged and empowered to analyse the situation and make proper decisions even at critical times.
A probe commission is formed after every air accident. But CAAN is often blamed for failing to implement the recommendations made by such commissions.
Depending upon the type and nature of the accident, a probe commission gives its report with necessary recommendations either to CAAN, the government, air operators concerned or manufacturers. Sometimes its recommendation is generic as well. The main objective of an investigation is to prevent similar accidents in the future. So far as the recommendations made to CAAN are concerned, we have fully complied with them. As per the recommendation of a probe panel, we have implemented the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). Besides, a flight tracking system has also been implementation. This system is used for tracking down rescue and other helicopters.
Besides, the marking of high-tension wires has been in place for aircraft to avoid accidents. We have done this by joining hands with the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA).
Moreover, the Standard Operating Procedures have been enforced at Lukla and other small airports apart from stand-by and independent power supply for cockpit instruments.
What other reform measures have been taken for improving air safety situation?
The provision of ‘pilot training simulator on type of aircraft’ has been made mandatory for airlines. This is one of the remarkable reform measures taken by CAAN. We have also introduced a yearly surveillance programme and frequency. We have started imparting training for inspectors and hiring additional number of such inspectors.
There are altogether 50 airports across the country. Of them, 32 are in operation.
Airlines can operate their flights even during the night to and from airports in Kathmandu, Biratnagar, Bhairahawa and Simara. We are installing this facility in Dhangadhi, Janakpur and Bhadrapur airports as well.
CAAN is preparing to launch rescue and fire fighting services at all the airports located in the Terai region.
Is there any possibility of the EU removing Nepal from its air safety list in the near future?
Yes. We have requested the EU to dispatch its team to Nepal to assess the ground reality. A EU team is expected to be in Kathmandu by September this year. We are hopeful that Nepal will be removed from the EU air safety list following its observation.
The crash of the US-Bangla Air aircraft has nothing to do with Nepal’s air safety situation. Although the plane crashed in Nepal, it is not in our safety oversight net. We are not to be blamed. The Civil Aviation Authority, Bangladesh (CAAB) is the authorised body for certification.
The increasing air traffic congestion at the TIA has now become a major problem. What is CAAN doing to tackle this?
TIA is congested significantly due to the high traffic growth and will continue to grow in the future. It is further worsened if the weather condition is not favourable. However, to solve the problem, we are working on terminal building expansion, addition of four international bays, and runway extension. We are not in a position to put in a process for the certification of any international air operator having an operation base at Kathmandu.
Some air operators have voiced for operating TIA round-the-clock. Is it possible?
It is not possible for us to operate the TIA round-the-clock as we have to carry out maintenance work of the available facilities and equipment. We do the maintenance work during the night. All the agencies, including the customs, immigration and security, may not be able to deploy their human resources for 24 hours.
We also have a social responsibility. As the airport is in the middle of the city, it may disturb the sleep of its denizens.
Many years have passed since we talked about building Nepal’s Second International Airport (SIA) at Nijgadh of Bara district. But the process is yet to begin.
With the growing air traffic movement, we are in dire need of other international airports. The Gautam Buddha Regional International Airport at Bhairahawa will come into operation in 2019. The airport construction work is going on in full swing. Similarly, the Pokhara Regional International Airport is also under construction. This airport will come into operation in 2021.
These airports are sure to reduce the air traffic load of Kathmandu.
Meanwhile, the groundwork for building the SIA at Nijgadh has already started. The Government of Nepal has demarcated the airport area, and CAAN has conducted an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). The process of relocating the local people and giving compensation to them has begun. Initiatives have been taken to resettle those having no land ownership certificates.
CAAN and the Nepal Army have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for site clearance work, such as cutting down of trees. The government has also allocated some budget for the project. Discussions are being held among the concerned agencies about the modality of this priority project. I think that the new government will decide on the modality of the project soon. The project will be implemented.
What will be the structure of CAAN in the federal system?
Unlike many other organisations and institutions, CAAN will not have a separate body at the provincial level. As per the requirement, we can establish our offices at different locations to facilitate and regulate the aviation services. CAAN’s head office will be at the federal level. The Constitution of Nepal has also clearly mentioned this.
Finally, would you like to add something?
We do not agree with the argument that CAAN has done nothing important. We have introduced the Satellite-based Approach System called RNP-AR. This system is going to be installed at Nepalgunj, Janakpur and Bhadrapur airports as well. Out of the country’s total sky, 75 per cent has radar surveillance coverage. Nepal’s sky is safe now.
We have expanded rescue and fire fighting services in order to reduce air accidents. Because of prompt services, we were able to save the lives of several passengers at the TIA during the crash of the US-Bangla Air plane.
We have received necessary support and cooperation from the government and other agencies. We would like to thank the Nepal Army, Nepal Police, Armed Police Force and others involved in the search and rescue operation during the fresh fatal air accident at the TIA.
We would like to take this opportunity to extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the air crash and wish speedy recovery of those injured in the accident. We also wish that the Almighty will grant eternal peace to the departed souls.