Chaos as Nepal bans repatriation flights

Nepali workers in Dubai after learning of the last minute cancellation of their flight to Kathmandu early Tuesday morning. Photo: NRNA UAE

Nepal’s sudden decision on 17 August to cancel all repatriation flights in and out of Kathmandu has left in the lurch tens of thousands of Nepalis abroad waiting to return home, as well as families and students who had already bought tickets to fly out.

The government’s Covid-19 Crisis Management Committee (CCMC) which is chaired by Defence Minister Ishwor Pokhrel abruptly announced the cancellation on Monday night, the day airlines had started a new phase of repatriation flights till 31 August. This extended the uncertainty for many Nepali workers in the Gulf, Malaysia, Korea and Japan who had registered with embassies to come home. In addition, students and families who had confirmed bookings have been told outbound flights have been cancelled indefinitely.

The CCMC’s Mahendra Guragain said the reason was that hotels that had been set aside for quarantine were not yet ready. However, many have pointed out that this is not logical because the number of arriving passengers had been reduced to 500 per day from this phase of repatriation flights – half the number arriving till last week.

Over at the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism, deputy secretary Buddha Sagar Lamichhane had a different reason about why the scheduled charter flights were cancelled: “It is because the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases is rising and there are neighbourhoods going into lockdown.”

So, is it the lack of hotels or the rise in number of cases? When we put that question to the CCMC, they referred us to the government, even though the committee is made up of government ministers. The authorities at Kathmandu airport said they had no idea why the pre-scheduled flights had to be cancelled, and told us to ask the Ministry of Tourism. The Ministry of Tourism said it was the CCMC’s decision.

Letter from the CCMC abruptly announcing the cancellation abruptly on Monday night.

Amidst this confusion, there is growing anger – especially among Nepali workers overseas who have been waiting for nearly six months for flights to Nepal and have run out of money and patience. Many had to turn back from airports in Dubai, Doha and Kuala Lumpur, and had already spent $50 carrying out mandatory PCR tests 72 hours before boarding. A Nepal Airlines Airbus 330 that had flown to Dubai to pick up passengers returned empty because of the government decision while it was en route.

Nepali workers have been pouring outrage and scorn at the government for its mishandling and confusion. Many are threatening to start a campaign not to send money home via official government channels anymore to be taxed, and instead use unofficial hundi channels. Wrote one angry Facebook user in the Gulf: ‘We are not anymore going to let our remittance go to officials who will squander our hard-earned money.’

Many stranded workers say they have got no information at all from the government, the airline or the embassies about why the flights were announced and suddenly cancelled. They are even angrier about the mixed messages: is it because of the lack of quarantine hotels in Kathmandu, or because of government agencies working at cross purposes?

“How can there not be enough hotels when the numbers flying in every day is going to be half of what it was last week?” asked one harried family member of a student booked on a flight later this week.

Some flights, like Turkish Airlines, were allowed to land on Tuesday because passengers in North America and Europe had already boarded when the government made the announcement.

“The government should just come out and tell the truth, that it is because case numbers in Kathmandu are rising,” said one airline source. ‘Why all this confusion? Also, if there are not enough quarantine hotels, why stop outbound passengers? Why stop people who want to leave?”

Nepal Embassy in the UAE listing repatriation flights for Nepali workers which were later cancelled.

At a time when Kathmandu’s hotels are reeling from the collapse of the tourism industry, the government could have easily designated different categories of hotels for quarantine and set a room tariff for each.

For international airlines, what is most frustrating is that the CCMC this time has not set a date on when charter, or regular flights can resume. International airlines are all in wait-and-watch mode, and have had to cancel up to 5,000 passengers who had been booked on outbound flights from Kathmandu in the coming weeks.

Domestic airlines which were set to resume operations on 17 August have also been told to postpone the restart indefinitely. But the operators, whose planes have been grounded for five months, say they cannot do so any longer and have threatened action if flights are not allowed to resume on 31 August. The government says the spread of Covid-19 has put Tarai cities under lockdown, so there will be no passengers anyway. 

“The government should just allow flights, and let us worry about passengers. We have done our rehearsals with safety protocols and can operate safely,” says Birendra Basnet of Buddha Air, Nepal’s largest domestic airline. 

Nepal Airlines which had 17 repatriation flights and Himalaya Airlines with 14 flights from the Gulf and Malaysia have cancelled charter flights scheduled for the next two weeks, leaving thousands of Nepali workers stranded. This phase of repatriation flights would have been from 17-31 August and would have brought in 7,000 passengers.

More than 51,000 Nepalis have returned on repatriation flights since they started on 15 June, but there are still another 250,000 who have registered with various embassies to return home. Previous passengers all needed coronavirus negative certificates, and were tested again on arrival and allowed to go home to self-isolate if they were negative.

Public health sources say the real danger of virus influx is from those coming unregulated across the land border, and not so much those who fly in because of the strict rules on having PCR negative tests 72 hours prior to departure.