Aiming high

Published : May 09, 2008 00:00 IST

Airbus 319 of Drukair, the national carrier of Bhutan, at Paro International Airport.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Airbus 319 of Drukair, the national carrier of Bhutan, at Paro International Airport.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

DRUKAIR, the national airline of Bhutan, celebrates its silver jubilee this year. The airline was established by a Royal Proclamation in March 1981 and commenced operations in January 1983.

When it started out, it had no engineers, no trained pilots, and was wholly dependent on technical assistance from the Government of India. Today, Drukair has two Airbus 319 aircraft, is self-sufficient, and is looking at new routes.

When Drukair started its operations with two 18-seater German manufactured Dornier 228s, Paro, the only airport in Bhutan, consisted of just the runway, a tiny two-room air-traffic control building, the ground floor of which was the check-in counter, and a departure lounge in the grass lawn. Both aircraft had to be based at the Kolkata airport, as Paro did not have hangars; Indian Airlines was responsible for their maintenance and support.

Paro is situated in a deep valley at an elevation of 7,300 feet above sea level, and the hills surrounding it are as high as 16,000 feet on an average. The approach to Paro is entirely by visual flight rules. The difficult operating conditions caused many delays and diversions. The growth of traffic necessitated larger aircraft.

After conducting numerous tests, the 72-seater British Aerospace BAe 146 was selected to start operations in November 1988. Soon, Drukairs network expanded to link Paro with New Delhi, Bangkok and Kathmandu. Though British Aerospace and Indian Airlines continued to provide technical support, Bhutan had by then started its own pilot training programme and shifted its maintenance base to Paro. But flight operations were still maintained by the Government of India and Indian pilots. The following year, Drukair purchased another BAe 146 and sold its two Dorniers.

In view of the rising demand for commercial services, Drukair and the Royal Government of Bhutan decided to upgrade the fleet with newer generation commercial aircraft with increased capacity and performance abilities. The search narrowed down to two manufacturers Boeing and Airbus. After observing demonstration flights of both parties at the Paro International Airport, the Drukair management decided to purchase two Airbus A319s in 2004.

In 2007, the two BAe 146s were sold as it was getting increasingly difficult and expensive to handle two different kinds of aircraft, requiring separate pilots, inventories and other infrastructure. Prior to their sale, the BAe 146s were leased out, mainly to Bangkok Airways, as were the new Airbus 319s. This is a practice we still persist with. As the location of Paro limits operations only to daytime, we lease out our aircraft particularly in the winter months. By this we get some additional business and also enhance aircraft usage, Tandin Jamso, deputy managing director, Drukair, told Frontline.

From two destinations in 1983, Drukair today flies to six cities in four countries in the South-East Asian region. It operates seven times a week to Bangkok of which five go via Kolkata and two via Gaya , and thrice a week to Kathmandu and New Delhi.

The number of passengers who travelled by Drukair in 1990 was 14,951. This increased by 25 per cent in 1991, with the introduction of flights to Bangkok via Dhaka. In 1992, new routes were introduced, including the Kathmandu-Delhi, and Bangkok-Kolkata routes. The number of passengers flying by Drukair was 1,26,778 in 2007.

We are now looking at new areas to expand and want to tap more passengers from India, said Jamso. At present there are flights to New Delhi and Kolkata, and Drukair wants one to Mumbai.

In the last three years, with the opening up of the economy and the development of infrastructure, there has been a sizable increase in air traffic to the country. Moreover, it is not just the tourists who are coming in; of late the Bhutanese people are going out too, said Jamso. He is hopeful that things will improve once a new airport comes up in southern Bhutan. Land has already been identified to build the airport.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
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