News of the pilot's death comes just when the EU was preparing to lift the ban on Nepali airlines from its skies

News that a senior captain of Nepal Airlines Corporation recently died of a massive heart attack the very day he was supposed to have flown to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, does not augur well for its image and speaks volumes about the state of aviation safety in this Himalayan country. The airline and the passengers should count themselves lucky that senior Captain Rakesh Jung Rana was not commanding the plane on November 24 last year when he suffered the heart attack. He had been admitted to a hospital in Kathmandu after feeling uncomfortable on that day, and was pronounced dead the following day. The news is especially worrisome as the medical tests, namely the treadmill test (TMT) and ECHO records, of Captain Rana conducted in 2019 anticipated a heart attack, but they were overlooked by the medical assessor of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), a grave negligence on the part of the doctor. Such a medical report with flaws should have led to the immediate suspension of the pilot's medical wellness certificate, while alerting Rana about his health condition.

News of the captain's death comes at a time when the European Union was preparing to lift the ban on Nepali airlines flying into its skies that has been in place since 2013, citing safety concerns. In December last year, the EU had praised the efforts being made to improve aviation safety in Nepal. Although the ban has had little impact on other airlines, Nepal Airlines has suffered heavily as it was once flying to Europe, connecting London, Paris and Frankfurt, among others, directly with Kathmandu. The EU had enforced the ban given the high rate of accidents in Nepal - on average of two accidents a year from 2008 to 2012. The EU had also sought a split in CAAN into two, separating its service provider and regulatory functions, but this is expected to take time. How the EU or other countries will take the latest oversight in examining the health of a captain is anyone's guess, but it sure is a blot on the safety standard of the national carrier.

A pilot's health is not something to be taken lightly as there are scores of passengers flying in a plane. As things unfold, it seems there are lapses taking place while examining the health of pilots, which need correcting if air safety is to improve. It has come to light that CAAN's medical assessor, who is an oncologist, is not authorised to analyse ECG or ECHO reports.

CAAN's aviation medical examiners (AMEs) are also said to be satisfied with ECG tests instead of the TMT, which is capable of predicting an impending heart attack with accuracy. If this is the case, CAAN must swing into immediate action to prevent any anomalies and see to it that the health assessment of pilots is carried out according to the standards set by ICAO, the international aviation regulator. Also, there are rules to follow while appointing the chief aviation medical assessor and AME, and they must be adhered to strictly. Their appointment cannot be made based on connections. CAAN has the onus to sort out all shortcomings, whether on the technical or medical front, so that the national flag carrier can regain its past glory.

Speed up the work

It is not sure how long it will take for the Department of Transport Management (DoTM) to conduct the written exams, trials and distribute the driving licences to the service-seekers as the number of new applicants has exceeded more than 500,000. The driving licence exams and trials were suspended since last April due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

The department had resumed its services in December.

It normally takes about nine months to obtain a driving licence once the trial is completed by the Traffic Police.

However, the department has made it easier for the service-seekers to fill up the form online 24/7 from a convenient place. They can just appear for the written and practical tests on the date fixed by the department.

The department officials need to change their modus operandi so that all the licence-seekers can get the government document without further delay. It's not only the new licence-seekers who have suffered from the department's slowness, even the old ones who need to get their licences renewed have been waiting in queue since a long time. As infection from COVID-19 has declined in the recent months, the DoTM should speed up its work to the optimum level.

A version of this article appears in the print on February 10, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.