• Tom Jordan

Nepal Airlines grounds all Chinese aircraft

Nepal Airlines (formerly Royal Nepal Airlines) suddenly and unexpectedly grounded its six-strong fleet on Chinese made aircraft on July 16th. This fleet consisted of two Xian MA60s and four Harbin Y-12 turboprop aircraft, which were based in the capital city of Kathmandu and used on short regional hops within Nepal.

Photo by Shadman Samee / Wikimedia Commons

The history of Chinese made turboprops at Nepal Airlines began in November 2011 with a bilateral deal between the Chinese and Nepalese governments, which was part of a wider trade deal between the two nations. As part of the deal, which would help Chinese aircraft manufacturers build a reputation outside of China, Nepal would purchase six aircraft from China for its flag carrier Nepal Airlines and then receive three aircraft for free from China as an incentive to buy from Chinese aircraft manufacturers Harbin and Xian. Nepal Airlines then received its first Harbin Y-12 in 2012 and later received its first Xian MA-60 in 2014. The Bangladeshi government was also supposed to be part of a similar deal with Chinese aircraft manufacturers but withdrew after deeming the Chinese made aircraft unsuitable for its operations.

However, shortly after the entry into service of the Harbin Y-12 aircraft, cracks began to show regarding the aircraft's reliability and suitability for the difficult operating conditions in Nepal. A senior aviation official Nepal described the Harbin Y-12 aircraft as "nothing more than a white elephant", stating that "many experts had said that the Y-12 would be a fitting alternative to the Canadian-built Twin Otter—the corporation’s workhorse serving remote routes since the 1970s, but that was proven wrong." The aircraft proved unsatisfactory for the routes it would be serving, so retirement was necessary. Nepal is one of the hardest areas for commercial rights due to its mountainous terrain, so aircraft have to be specifically designed for these kinds of routes. Another official noted the lack of a plan for the utilization of these planes, as no crew member was trained to operate these props, as another reason for the early retirement. Either way, the aircraft was not the right plane for the airline.

The coronavirus pandemic has severely damaged the profits of many carriers, including Nepal Airlines. This has caused many airlines to retire older aircraft, which they see as more of a liability than a valuable asset. These Chinese aircraft, which are expensive to operate and unreliable, have not proven their worth to the airline, and this would be bad in the best of circumstances. Hopefully, a newer aircraft will be able to perform what the Twin Otter could, and this will better serve the market.

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