Chinese presence in Nepal skies

Nepal’s only international airport, Tribhuvan International Airport, witnessed a rare ceremony last Sunday with playing of traditional Nepali ‘Panche baja’ instruments, a Hindu ‘puja’ ritual and lot of merrymaking.

The occasion was arrival of a China-made 56-seater Modern Ark 60 (MA60) aircraft donated by Nepal’s northern neighbour to the state-owned Nepal Airlines Corporation.

The event hit the headlines with one newspaper terming the welcome as something similar to the one given to a new bride at the groom’s house. The ‘bride’ was officially handed over on Monday.

The turboprop-powered aircraft manufactured by Xi’an Aircraft Industries Corporation is the first one to be inducted to NAC’s fleet for domestic operations since 1986.

This is the first time a Chinese aircraft would be used for operations by NAC or any other Nepali operator. The national flag carrier has already announced plans to carry passengers from next month.

Over the course of next five months China will deliver five more aircrafts—another MA60 and four 19-seater Harbin Y12Es—to Nepal as part of a NRs 6.67 billion (Rs 4.16 billion) agreement signed last year.

One of the smaller planes will be a grant while the rest are being purchased by NAC with a highly subsidized loan provided by Beijing at an interest rate of 1.5% payable over next 20 years.

The latest development is part of China’s increased financial, cultural and political engagement with Nepal.

The agreement has had its share of controversies with a petition filed in Supreme Court over NAC’s decision not to invite international bidding for the purchase. The court cleared the deal earlier this month.

Once all aircrafts are delivered and put into operation NAC’s China-made fleet would compete with the Jetstreams, Beechcrafts and ATRs of Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air, the two largest private operators in Nepal, for a share of the profitable domestic market.

In its earlier avatar as Royal Nepal Airlines, NAC, which was established in 1958, was the leading airlines in Nepal. But political interference, mismanagement and financial woes resulted in emergence of several private players in the domestic market in the last two decades.

At present the corporation is running domestic operations with just one Twin Otter following the loss of an aircraft this February in a crash which claimed 18 lives. It has a Boeing 757 for international operations.

The entry of Chinese aircrafts is expected to revive the corporation’s fortunes and see a jump in passengers, which fell by over 44% last year.

But here’s a note of caution for those rushing to buy the low-cost tickets for NAC’s MA60 flights. The aircraft used by operators in Asia, Africa and South America is yet to receive safety certificates from the US and many European Union nations.

Over the past five years the aircraft has faced nearly a dozen major technical problems—most of them related to landing. In May 2011, 21 passengers and 6 crew members lost their lives when an MA60 crashed into the sea in Indonesia barely 500 metres before landing.

Last year the New Zealand government suspended its development aid programme to Tonga after the country took delivery of a MA60 donated by China. New Zealand also advised its citizens visiting the island nation not to fly the aircraft for safety reasons.

Nepal has been witness to many air crashes in past few years. Last year European Union termed all Nepali airlines unsafe and banned them from flying to the 28-nation bloc.

For the sake of passengers who would fly the MA60 in Nepal one hopes the oft-repeated Nepali coinage about unreliability of Chinese products—“Made in China–Aaja Cha, Bholi Chaina” (Made in China—Here today, Gone tomorrow)–doesn’t come true.

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