Yog Raj Kandel Sharma is Secretary General of Helicopter Society of Nepal as well as Chief Executive Officer of Heli Everest Pvt Ltd. In his exclusive tete-a-tete with ceotab.com, Mr Sharma divulges his views on myriad aspects of the Nepali helicopter industry. Excerpts:
First of all, could you please tell us something about the Helicopter Society of Nepal?
Over the last few decades, the Nepali aviation sector has been growing phenomenally. In line with such growth, many private players continue to foray into the sector. Beside the aircraft operators, a number of helicopter companies are also entering the market. And, this has created a glaring need to expedite the growth of the aviation service by making it more standardized, systematic and reliable. In order to help fulfill such gap, we, the representatives of the helicopter service industry, formed the Helicopter Society of Nepal in just last October this year. The Society also aims to protect the genuine professional interests of helicopter operators while working for broader well-being of the entire aviation sector of the country.
Has the Society undertaken any activities as per its set objectives?
Of course, it is taking some crucial initiatives that are related to the enhancement of the service standard of the country’s aviation sector as a whole. For instance, we have lately come up with a new and clearly defined plan to make the heli lanes in the Kathmandu valley more scientific and systematic. As per the plan, coordinates, nautical mile (DME), altitude and other important aspects of the helicopters following the current 8 heli lanes namely Bagmati (Bravo & Kilo), Gokarna, Maiju, Thankot (Bravo and Kilo), Tokha, Sitapaila, Changu and Bhaktapur have been made more scientific and systematic. There is a broad purpose behind this plan, which is drawn complying with the rules and regulations of the regulatory body i.e Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN).
So, what is such purpose?
It is to help manage the air traffic congestion by around 33 percent in the Tribhuwan International Airport by mitigating frequency jamming at its tower (air traffic control). Due to such congestion, both airplanes and choppers are compelled to hold themselves in the air for a lengthy period. This air holding problem has caused not only an increment in their operation cost but also a great deal of inconvenience amongst the general passengers. Similarly, it is creating air pollution with extra burning of air fuel.
On the other side, the heli lane strategy is chalked out considering safety/security of human settlements, places of ecological and cultural importance and sensitive institutions inside the valley.
So if the plan is implemented, it will help upgrade the aviation service standard of the country in the long run. This was drawn by the Society as per the rules and regulation of the regulatory body i.e Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN). And, remarkably, the body is positive towards it effective implementation.
Could you share us other steps taken by the Society?
It has also recently taken an initiative to help upgrade the infrastructure of the Lukla Airport. In collaboration with other related stakeholders, we carried out tasks like drawing marks in the helicopter landing area and conducting awareness classes related to safety targeting the ground staffers. Just tasks were every important given that the airport is getting more busier day by day. In the tourism season, it has been recording as much as 175 air flights a day.
In the same vein, we helped prepare a Work Procedure pertaining to the medical helicopter service for lactating and pregnant women living in some 23 rural districts of the country for medical purpose. In association with the Ministry for Women, Children and Social Welfare, the Society prepared such procedure.
What is the current status of Nepali helicopter industry and what are its major services?
It, indeed, is doing fairly well. Along with growth of the country’s aviation sector as a whole, the helicopter service industry is also gaining traction. Now there are ten helicopters in the country and two more are in the pipeline. Some five/six years back, the number of such companies was just 5. It means every year two new players are venturing into the market. The industry seems growing by around 10 percent per year and its annual turnover stands at Rs 2.5 billion.
Ten Nepali helicopter companies currently have 33 choppers in total. They are being used to offer the services like passenger/VIP transport, tourist sightseeing, emergency medical evacuation, search and rescue, aerial photography, aerial survey work, parachute dropping and law enforcement work.
Is the industry facing any major problems that could inhibit its growth?
We are facing the grave challenge of lack of sufficient infrastructure. Specifically speaking, the air operators are being marred by the country’s poor aviation infrastructure. The lack of needed technical and other facilities in the airports across the country have stifled us from offering our services in the best way. On the other side, the responsible state agencies are shying away from facilitating us in our daily operations. For instance, the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) does not provide helicopter companies enough Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) citing the lack of enough number of bowsers. This has posed a serious obstacle in providing effective and efficient services to our clients.
What should be done to address the problems faced by the helicopter industry and ultimately spur its growth?
The industry, no doubt, reserves immense potentials to help turnaround the socio-economic development in as geographically challenging country as Nepal. In fact, it has direct/indirect contribution of around 3 percent to the country’s GDP.
As such, it behooves the concerned authorities to take the industry seriously and act accordingly. Among other things, the helicopter industry is in need of institutional development. For this, the establishment of institutions like Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) companies and flying schools here in the country is highly desirable.
If the MRO companies are established, it will free the helicopter companies from the current compulsion to send their choppers to foreign countries for maintenance. This will also naturally prevent a great deal of Nepali currency from going outside the country in the name of aircraft maintenance cost.
Likewise, the commencement of flying schools offering a variety of courses for both fixed wing and helicopters is also highly beneficial. In fact, it will not only bolster the helicopter companies but also benefit the Nepali aviation industry as a whole. Currently, those Nepali student interested in aeronautical studies are compelled to go to other countries. They tend to fork out as much as Rs 8 million on an average for such studies.
If flying schools are established, they can learn aeronautical courses by spending just around Rs 5 million. This will help produce qualified Nepali professionals here in the country for the helicopter companies, which have long been hiring foreign ones for chopper operations, in a cost-effective way.
The current Minister of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Rabindra Adhikari has told us that the government is mulling over providing tax holidays to the potential investors for establishing flying schools. We have taken this as a positive gesture on the part of the government towards the entire aviation industry.
All in all, the helicopter industry will fly to new horizons if concrete efforts are made for its institutional development.