Druk Air has resumed scheduled flights to Gelephu. It came on the heels of the salang tendrel for the extension of the existing airport, which will play a major role in the Mindfulness City project that was formally launched on National Day.

Our airlines are more than just airlines. They are our connection and our lifeline to the world. Besides, Druk Air is our national flag carrier. And this is not a small responsibility. In my view, connectivity and furthering national pride and identity should be the main focus of Druk Air.


The concept of national flag carrier

Allow me to elaborate my argument with some academic studies and experiences from around the world.

As a Bhutanese, I grew up at a time when there was no air service in the country. Bhutan did not even have a helicopter then. I have always loved aeroplanes since I was a child. I watched the Indian jet fighters thunder over our school in Kharbandi. So one can imagine the excitement I felt when I saw pictures of a Dornier aircraft with the national flag on its tail. Of course, back then I was unaware of all the hard work, and the diplomacy of the Highest Office, which went behind to get that tiny aircraft flying. I only learned that much later – first hand.

Today, in the world, there are more than 30 state-owned airlines, and some big names such as Thai Airways and Air India, that run on loss. However, these countries recognise that air transport in general, and national airlines in particular, play a pivotal role by facilitating rapid connectivity, fostering economic growth through tourism and trade, and enhancing a country’s sovereignty and security. Above all, they instil pride and promote national identity by flying the national flag around the world.

Studies by scholars such as Raguraman on the national carriers of Malaysia and Singapore reveal how the governments of these two nations viewed their airlines “as important national symbols and as ‘chosen instruments’ for projecting their countries internationally”. In his paper, he examined the varying ways in which their flag carriers, a term coined at the Chicago Convention in 1944, have served to promote nation building and national identity. There was even a joke back in those days that a nation was not considered legitimate until it had collectible stamps and a flag carrier.

In recent years, three countries that have taken up building their airlines as their national brands are the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey. In the last decade or so, they have gone on, with heavy subsidies from their governments, to build some of the best airlines in the market today. Switzerland did the opposite, only to realise the error and put their flag carrier back in the sky.

Our flag carrier can do more. I have suggested in my article on the Australia exodus that one way to keep an emotional link with our growing diaspora is to establish a physical connection by having our airlines do regular flights to Australia and to the Middle East. That would spark off, what in sociology is called, a circular migration. Maybe to start with, our government could negotiate seasonal flights with these governments, and then slowly make it a scheduled offering. Imagine being greeted by Druk Air’s dragon logo in Kuwait, Qatar or Canberra. Definitely it would help maintain a stronger connection with home through regular visits and investments.


Role of air connectivity for Gelephu

With the launch of the most ambitious project of our lifetime, which would require the best and most convenient connectivity to Gelephu, I commend the decision by Druk Air to resume its scheduled flights there. I understand it also plans to go international using the existing runway and the ATR aircraft to fly to cities like Bagdogara, Kolkata and Kathmandu. That would really act as a catalyst for the project. For these routes even an unpressurised Cessna Grand Caravan would do the job. These have very low operating costs.

In the long run our airlines stand to gain the most from this project – and so does our tourism industry. I hope that Bhutan Airlines, which bravely weathered Covid-19 when many private airlines went bust, will join this noble initiative to build the city of the future.

As a student of communication, I cannot stress how much communication, connectivity, and connections play a vital role in the making of a nation. Different political parties have been toying with the idea of more airports around the country. Why not? We don’t have to fly the Airbus around. Small aircrafts known as STOL (short take-off and landing) could be deployed like in Nepal and other mountainous countries. There are many makes and models in the market, such as the Twin Otter and Beechcraft. If you have at least 800 metres of runway, you are good to go. We should shed the description of our country as being poor, mountainous or landlocked. It blocks our minds from doing anything big or bold.

There should be more than just two flights in a week to Gelephu. Agreed that there is no demand now. However, to paraphrase the legendary Steve Jobs of Apple Inc, you create the demand where there isn’t one. That’s how you become a market leader and a trendsetter. I believe that if somehow our airlines could bring down the prices, more could fly, and more demand could be created. This is the business model of budget airlines such as AirAsia whose slogan is “Now Everyone Can Fly”. If the government needs to subsidise our airlines, it should do so. The overall benefit would be spread to the people and to the economy. After all, we are talking about national unity and solidarity, and pressing our economic pedal hard, as we embark on the most important royal initiative for some years to come.

I travel a lot. Nothing is more reassuring than seeing your own people and the flag waiting for you in India, Nepal or Thailand to take you back home. Whenever I am close to Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on the highway, I always turn my head towards the tarmac where our two airlines, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines, are usually parked. Seeing either of them with our national symbols always makes me proud.

And like that little boy who was incredibly excited to see the tiny Dornier carry our flag in 1983, I was once again filled with wonder and awe when I landed in Gelephu two weeks back. I just stood there for a couple of minutes savouring that beautiful moment in history.


Contributed by

Dorji Wangchuk (PhD)

Professor, Writer,