What can Nepal learn from Ethiopia?

DREAM COME TRUE: Capt Pradeep Shrestha in the cockpit of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner (left) says there is no reason Nepal airlines cannot replicate Ethiopian’s success. Pic: Kunda Dixit

Nepal and Ethiopia have travelled similar trajectories as nations. Both are ancient landlocked former monarchies, both suffered ruinous wars, both struggle with governance and corruption, both are now vibrant democracies, but poverty and disease are persistent and endemic in the two countries.

Compared with Ethiopia, however, Nepal has a much higher GDP per capita, is ahead in the ease of doing business, and Nepal has made much more progress in improving health indicators.

There is one area in which Ethiopia is far ahead of Nepal, however: running a global airline. While Nepal Airlines is mired in government interference and mismanagement, state-owned Ethiopian Airlines is a reputed award-winning airline.

“What has allowed Ethiopian Airlines to fly high is that from the time of [former emporer] Haile Selassie, the carrier has been insulated from government interference. It is state-owned, but does not depend on the state,” explains Pradeep Shrestha, a Nepali captain who flies for Ethiopian.

Having flown for Nepal Airlines for nearly four decades, Shrestha has a unique perspective for comparing the two countries and their airlines. He credits Ethiopia’s former rulers, who saw the national airline as a global ambassador flying the country’s flag, whereas in Nepal, politicians interfered with the national airline.

Ethiopian Airlines was voted Best Airline in Africa last year and is the most profitable carrier in the region. The airline is the envy of other African nations because of the full autonomy it enjoys, despite being owned by the government. The airline has a fleet of 103 aircraft, including the latest model Boeing 777 and 787, and Airbus 350s, one of which is named Mt Everest. It has its own state-of-the-art maintenance hangar, and an advanced crew training school.

From the beginning, Ethiopian has set its sights on being a global airline and accomplished it with a deep sense of nationalism, commitment, and transparency. There was a time Royal Nepal Airlines also had vision, and was regarded as one of the best airlines in the region for its service and equipment. It was one of the first carriers in Asia to buy state-of-the-art Boeing 757s in 1985, which today would be like acquiring brand new Dreamliners.

“Actually, I believe we have as much potential as Ethiopian,” Capt Shrestha told Nepali Times. “Ethiopian is leveraging the country’s location, while Nepal can promote its destination.”

Indeed, Ethiopian Airlines has pivoted its Addis Ababa hub as the gateway to Africa, offering connections to nearly 30 destinations in the continent for its flights from China, South Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Shrestha returned to Nepal after getting his pilot’s license in Canada in 1982, flew Twin Otters, then Boeing 757s. He went back to flying STOLs for Kasthamandap to remote area airports.

But when Ethiopian Airlines announced vacancies for pilots, he applied because his “dream was to fly Dreamliners”. At first he flew Ethiopian 767s chartered to the U.N., and often flew Nepali peacekeeping forces from Sudan, Haiti and East Timor to a familiar Kathmandu airport.

Shrestha says he often wonders what Nepal Airlines would need to take off again. He thinks adding wide bodies would be the first step, but much more important would be visionary leadership, elimination of government interference, discipline, and a merit-based management.

He adds: “There is no reason why Nepal cannot do what Ethiopian has accomplished. I am positive about it.”