Patchwork won’t do

What can be a greater paradox than the fact that the national flag carrier is currently without any aircraft fit to operate international flights. Taking this into account, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has directed the Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) to lease one aircraft. It issued a five-point directive to NAC to take immediate action against the persons responsible. The lease directive aims to help NAC keep its flight schedules. Of the two ageing jets it has, one, Boeing 757, was sent to Brunei for repairs a month ago, and the other has been put out of action because of short circuit since Saturday. A month ago, too, NAC had been unable to run international flights for a brief period. Well over 1,000 passengers now find themselves stranded. All this has happened at a time when airline bookings are full, and passengers have no option but to wait for weeks for a flight in or out of Nepal. Hotel bookings are similarly high and increasing, thanks to relative peace. To meet the high demand for air-tickets, the government has permitted foreign airlines to operate four additional flights a week, and is likely to permit more.

PAC’s sense of urgency is understandable. But such directives alone will not even scratch at the surface of the deep-seated problems NAC has been facing for the past decades. The airline’s plight is the result of a long accumulation of managerial problems, government’s (bureaucratic and political) interference and that of other power centres, and decisions based on personal or other vested interests. The leasing of an aircraft may enable NAC, which has 1,500 employees, to operate a few foreign flights a week. Or foreign airlines may fill in. But the solution to NAC’s chronic sickness lies elsewhere. The government formed a couple of commissions in recent years with a view to turning around once the country’s only airline. But no measures have been taken so far to improve matters.

The problem is not one of diagnosis, but of treatment. Medication alone will not cure NAC; major surgery is necessary. It is here that successive governments have failed to summon the courage. PAC also directed the airline management to come up with a work plan within a month to forge public-private partnership to run NAC. Even at this late stage, those in authority appear confused about what exactly they should do. Even in making recommendations for NAC’s improvement, power centres or lobbies have mooted several options, including its virtual dissolution. No government in Nepal has demonstrated particular interest in floating PEs’ shares for tens of thousands of ordinary citizens to buy. This is probably because such a course will leave no discretionary power in the hands of those in authority. To save NAC, its ownership structure must be changed in favour of private participation. But this should be brought about mainly through maximum people’s participation. Its dissolution or sell-off to some business group is likely to bring back bitter memories of the past bouts of privatisation in the country.