Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC) was established in 1958 but it wasn’t until 1972 that the carrier added its first jet equipment, in the form of a single new Boeing 727-1F8, 9N-ABD, delivered on August 16. Previously the largest equipment had been DC-3s, a Fokker F-27 (written off in January 1970 at New Delhi) and a pair of Hawker Siddeley HS-748s.
The 727 was such a spectacle to the Nepalese that people would rush to their rooftops to watch in awe as it came in to land. Fitted for 123 passengers the single 727 carried the weight of regional services to Delhia, Calcutta and Bangkok until May 1979 when it was joined by a single ex-Lan Chile 727-116 Combi registered 9N-ABN.
At this time Royal Nepal constituted 50% of the market into Nepal, with most of the rest provided by Indian Airlines. Even though 80% of all arrivals into Nepal were by air by 1985 Royal Nepal’s share of the market actually dropped to only 38%. Nonetheless the airline’s revenues increased from Rs 385 million in 1980/81 to Rs 793.1 million by 1985/86. The carrier was profitable and charter revenues had grown substantially to 16.4% of all traffic.
A third 727 was added in June 1986 (acquired from Pride Air but originally delivered to Braniff in 1966), but clearly the three holer, although capable in the high-altitude conditions, was not the future, especially as it would not meet stricter noise regulations being introduced in Singapore and Hong Kong. Instead Royal Nepal looked once again to Boeing and in 1986/87 ordered a pair of new Boeing 757-200s. At the time the $110 million order was Nepal’s largest ever trade deal. The first 757, 9N-ACA named ‘Karnali’, was a standard 757-2F8 and joined the fleet on September 7, 1988 but the second was to become a unique aircraft.
9N-ACB, named ‘Gandaki’ after the Nepalese province, was delivered on September 15, 1988 as a 757-2F8M i.e. a Combi. Combi variants have fallen out of favour today following a number of accidents but the central idea was to provide an airframe that was both a passenger aircraft and a cargo aircraft at the same time. Forward combis have a large side cargo door but keep the passenger windows also.
Boeing announced the 757-200M in February 1986 and would typically allow for 3 cargo containers and 150 passengers. Combi variants of aircraft had been common in the 1960s and 70s and could be found for most Boeing and Douglas aircraft types from DC-9s and 727s to DC-10s and 747s. By the late 80s however they were something of a niche and Gandaki actually became the only Combi 757 that was ever built as such.
RNAC was solidly profitable at this time and on revenues of $54.3 million in 1988/89 made a profit of $17 million. The airline was Nepal’s largest employer and earner of foreign currency whilst about 75% of its passengers were foreign tourists. The 757s assisted the airline to add London Gatwick, Dubai, Dhaka, Karachi and Bombay to its network in 1989.
From this highpoint the fortunes of Royal Nepal dipped during the 1990s. In terms of equipment the airline retired its original 727-1F8 in October 1993 and sold its last three-holer in January 1994. On a more positive note a single A310-300 was leased from GPA in December 1993 until July 1996. This aircraft could be regularly seen at locations such as Frankfurt.
Outside of fleet changes however Nepal itself was undergoing severe political unrest as the absolute monarchy of King Birendra was forced to institute a multi-party parliament. These steps nonetheless did not do enough to avert a civil war between the government and the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal, which began in 1996.
In addition, employee unrest (including a pilot strike in 1991), deregulation of the internal market in 1992, internal corruption, fuelled by political interference, and several crashes all had a negative impact on the national airline. High points like the October 1994 inauguration of services to Japan (with a fuel stop in Shanghai) were few and far between. Several other 757s were leased for short periods during the late 90s but wet-leases of China Southwest aircraft caused further unrest amongst the airline’s own pilots and the resulting strikes led to the cancellation of the leases. With a much-reduced fleet Royal Nepal’s international network was heavily cutback and the quality of service undermined.
The early 2000s were a period of further unrest for both the airline and the nation. There were several airline related corruption scandals whilst nationally the majority of the royal family were massacred in June 2001 by Crown Prince Dipendra. In 2006 the airline was renamed Nepal Airlines following the agreement that the nation would become a republic, however little changed at the airline, which had gone from one of the best in Asia to one of the worst in a decade.
Through all the turmoil the 757s continued to fly. Famously in 2007 the airline sacrificed two goats to appease the Hundi sky god Akash Bhairab when one of the 757s suffered technical problems:
Eventually however time caught up with the Boeings, which had become expensive to maintain and operate. They were initially supplemented by a pair of A320s and in 2018 replaced by a pair of A330s. 9N-ACA was actually retired in April 2016, however 9N-ACB soldiered on until March 2019 when a C-check was due. At least in her later career the 757 Combi was not operated as such and the entire fuselage was outfitted for passengers in a 174 seat economy class and 16 seat Shangri-La business class configuration.
The sale of 9N-ACA proved far from simple. She was sold to the Nepalese private career BB Airways for NRs 170 Million. They had bought the aircraft stating it would be used to operate international cargo flights but after many months of sitting on the ground at Kathmandu the airline announced it would sell the aircraft for scrap. Given its advanced age and unusual build it is highly unlikely that 9N-ACB will ever fly again.
The arrival of the Airbus fleet will hopefully prove a springboard to regain some of Nepal Airline’s former glory, however none of the carrier’s issues can be laid at the door of the 757s. Both Karnali and Gandaki served the carrier faultlessly for three decades, through the good times and bad.
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I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: