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NAC looks abroad to fill shortage of pilots

- SANGAM PRASAIN, Kathmandu

A looming shortage of pilots has prompted Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) to turn to international recruitment agencies for help. The national flag carrier issued bids this week to hire more than five dozen foreign pilots to fly its varied fleet of aircraft.

Other Nepali carriers planning to launch international services are also expected to outsource their pilot needs to foreign firms. Nepal’s aviation industry is taking off as demand for both domestic and international sector continues to soar. But there’s one pressing problem: a shortage of pilots.

“It’s widely accepted that global aviation is facing a shortage of pilots. We are not an exception,” said Sugat Ratna Kansakar, managing director of NAC. “There are no pilots available here. So, we decided to hire foreigners.” As per the bids, pilots will be hired on a contractual basis for different aircraft. The contract shall be of six months to five years.

Between 2009 to 2013, Nepali airlines found themselves with enough personnel to fly its planes. During that time, according to officials of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (Caan), there were more than 200 unemployed pilots in Nepal. Frequent air crashes dented demand for both pilots and aircraft during that period.

However, the industry scenario changed after 2016 when domestic airlines started to expand their fleets. A number of new players started an airfare war, and the resultant cheaper tickets encouraged more travellers to fly. More than a dozen new aircraft were added in 2017, and the fleet expansion spree is likely to continue this year.

International air passenger traffic recorded double-digit growth in 2017, registering a 10.74 percent increase over the previous year despite infrastructural hurdles. A record 3.88 million passengers passed through Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) last year.

The year 2017 was another bumper year for domestic airlines, as they recorded a 39.47 percent jump in domestic air passenger movement following the addition of new aircraft to cater to the growing number of air travellers. Domestic airline companies saw a record 2.45 million passengers in 2017, as travellers chose to fly rather than drive over dilapidated national highways.

Meanwhile, Nepali domestic airlines are upgrading themselves to international carriers. Buddha Air is planning to launch long-haul international destinations by 2020 while Shree Airlines plans to start cross-border flights soon. Another private carrier, Himalaya Airlines, is expanding in a big way. Nepal Airlines will be adding two wide-body Airbus A330 jets within a month.

A quick calculation shows that Nepali airlines currently need more than 100 captains, and demand would grow, according to Caan officials. Airline officials said that poaching pilots would become another issue in the industry soon. When there aren’t enough pilots to go around, carriers will certainly resort to headhunting, they said.

Meanwhile, ‘some powerful company’, fearing a pilot shortage, last year persuaded the aviation regulator to enforce a new rule stating that pilots have to give a year’s notice when quitting, according to pilots. They said that the move had reduced pilot turnover to some extent, but that it violates their right to job selection.   

A pilot needs at least 3,500 hours of flying experience to become a captain. This requirement means that it will take a pilot more than six years to become a captain. The exact flying experience is 1,500 hours to become a captain. It was revised in Nepal after the number of air accidents increased.

With limited airlines and aircraft in the past, vacancies were very limited. The unprecedented boom in the industry has created shortage of captains, operators said.

According to Caan, there are currently 232 pilots holding airline transport pilot licences (ATPL) for fixed-wing aircraft and 21 pilots for helicopters. An ATPL allows the holder to act as the pilot in command or captain.  Likewise, the number of commercial pilot licence (CPL) holders is 281 for fixed-wing aircraft and 50 for helicopters.

CPL is a qualification that permits the holder to act as the pilot in command of a single pilot aircraft, or as the co-pilot of a multi-pilot aircraft.

New Airbus to arrive on Thursday
It’s official. Nepal Airlines Corporation’s (NAC) brand new Airbus A330-200 is expected to touch down at Tribhuvan International Airport at 8:30 am on Thursday. According to Sugat Ratna Kansakar, managing director of NAC, they will be sending the final installment of $80 million for one of the two jets on Sunday.

The 274 seater long-range jet has 18 seats in business class and 256 in economy class. The second jet is expected to arrive next month. In April last year, NAC signed the final purchase agreement for two Airbus A330-200 long-range jets from US-based AAR Corp. The $209.6-million contract is the largest-ever jet purchase deal in Nepal’s aviation history.

Published: 2018-06-22 08:50:54