Kathmandu (AsiaNews) - Nepal and China reached in record time a deal to renew at a low cost the Himalayan nation's civilian aircraft fleet, raising questions about the government's decision to save money at expense of passenger safety. For some experts at the Civil Aviation Authority Nepal, the six Chinese-made aircrafts bought for US$ 70 million are unsafe and unreliable, and will not boost the country's ailing economy by opening new international routes as promised by Beijing.
"We should focus on safety and security of passengers rather than a cheap loan and grant. The government should have considered all these factors before the final deal," said Suman Shretha, operating director of the Civil Aviation Authority Nepal (CAAN).
Echoing this view, Bharat Shrestha, chairman of the Airlines Operating Committee, noted that "The Chinese planes will be more risky to fly in Nepali skies".
The debate on buying new airplanes began on 29 November when the Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) announced a deal with Beijing worth about US$ 70 million to renovate its aging fleet which dates back to the mid-1980s.
The day after the announcement, the European Commission imposed a ban on all Nepali airlines from flying in the skies of EU member countries, and issued an advisory to all EU citizens not to fly Nepali air carriers.
Despite EU restrictions, Nepal and China signed the US$ 70 million deal on 5 December. Under its terms, Nepal would buy six aircrafts with a soft loan to be repaid in 20 years at an annual interest of 1.5 per cent.
Over the next three months, China would provide two of the six aircrafts, a 58-seater MA60 and a 19-seater Y12e, to replace the domestic fleet which now consists of one vintage Twin Otter.
Nepal is one of South Asia's main tourist destinations, but its main airliner has only one aircraft for international flights. Most domestic flights are run by private airlines such as Air Sita which often rely on old and obsolete planes to connect the capital to tourist sites at the foot of the Himalayas where base camps are located for mountain expeditions.
Between 1960 and 2012, at least 70 plane have crashed in Nepal killing 300 people. Since last May, as many as six planes crashed on their way to tourist destinations, killing 36 passengers and crew members.