Connecting remote areas is crucial, especially during times like we had during the COVID-19 situation. So, flying to short runways on distant places to deliver food, medicines and other essential supplies, and also recovering swab samples and stranded tourists, SITA Air is one of three Nepalese airlines that provided support to COVID-19 relief operations over the Himalayas.
By Santiago Rivas
Being isolated in the middle of the Himalayan mountains makes people to be more dependent on air transport than those from other regions in the world. When the pandemic of COVID-19 led to most governments to declare a total lockdown, which included the suspension of all public transports, those isolated towns on the mountains lost their only link with the rest of the world and many depended on that for their subsistence. Also, tourists get stranded in some of them, and in Nepal, that was the case mainly in the town of Lukla, the closest one to the Mount Everest.
The critic situation originated led to the Nepalese government to organize the support of local airlines to carry supplies to the isolated towns and evacuate the stranded tourists.
In the country the first identified case in Nepal was found to be an infected student who returned from Wuhan, China, in the middle of February. The person got treated and recovered within 7 days. The escalation of the pandemic did not start till end of March when it started its transmission around the globe rapidly and lots of students, travelers and other locals started returning from overseas. The second case was identified again as a returning student from France, on the fourth week of March, and it is then on March 26th when the Nepalese government decided to impose a lockdown and strict social distancing measures which are still in place. “Nepal has been under lock down for almost 60 days now” explained Rajendra Singh on April, Managing Director of SITA Air, one of the main regional airlines in Nepal, which operates two Dornier 228-202s and one Dornier 228-212. “Under lockdown all means of public transports have been suspended, including aviation. However, as Nepal has few mountainous districts those do not have highway linkages and are dependent on aerial support for daily supplies, the Nepalese government has allowed only cargo flights to these districts in order to deliver essential food supply and medicines” adds Rajendra.
“Carrying government food supplies to the mountainous areas of Karnali province was always part of our usual business” he tells and explained that once the lockdown was imposed, they approached the government and reminded them about the criticality of the continuation of these food supply flights to the region as any supply chain break ups might result in famine in these remote rural areas. Hence the government agreed and made it as part of their agenda to support these areas with the continuation of their air services along with other two airlines.
At the same time, he explained that “the Ministry of Health has tasked us with flying medics to rural and mountain regions. These regions have limited healthcare facilities and are short of the manpower needed for widespread COVID-19 testing. The immediate need is testing, not just of likely infections, but also for random sampling to help the health authorities better understand the geographic spread of the virus,” he says. Those swab samples are flown to rapid testing facilities in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, he says.
The advantage of the company, as well as others operating the Dornier 228, was its STOL capacity, making them able to operate on all airfields in the country, especially those well inside the Himalaya. Thanks to this, the SITA Air was assigned by the government to carry cargo flights to Humla, Jumla and Mugu. Also, medicines and health workers were carried on the flights. “As a result, SITA has been continuously executing these flights as per the government permission and order. In between, SITA also carried out few passenger flights where the stranded people of Humla district were flown back to Humla from Nepalgunj and Karnali province capital, Surkhet. For these passenger flights, all health safety measures laid out by the World Health Organization, ICAO and our local regulator CAAN were considered” explains Rajendra.
At the same time, tourists were flown-out from Lukla during March, with SITA performing a total of eight flights, while another one was made to Taplejung airport to enable the 4 stranded tourists to return to their home country.
From 1 April until 23 May, the company performed more than 300 flights, and continued doing so after that.
Crews and airplanes
When the virus appeared and there was little information about it, there was some concern and apprehension amongst the crew for delivering these flights in the potentially contagious environment. “But once they were trained and provided with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) along with the implementation of comprehensive Sanitisation Standard Operative Procedures (SOP) for each flight operation, confidence of all involved has gone up and we have been dedicatedly living up to our commitment to serve under these trying circumstances” tells Rajendra.
As he highlights, beside the crews, “it is also because of the endurance of our aircraft that SITA Air has been able to deliver the most flight missions in Lukla. This by delivering more essential cargo loads to these remote areas, thanks to the STOL ability and the long endurance of our Dornier 228, we would have not been been able to perform this much”.