Bathpalathang airport is getting extended, a masterplan for Gelephu ready

Nima Wangdi

Wondered why Druk Air’s smaller aircraft fly at half capacity to Bumthang while they refuse tickets to passengers?

The airport runway is too short for the plane, the ATRs used for domestic flights, to fly at full capacity. However, the national airline is hopeful to be able to fly at full capacity with the airport being extended. Today, the ATRs could carry only about 15 passengers during the hot seasons, which is about half of their capacity of 40.

The airport at Bathpalathang in Bumthang is getting extended by 500 metres.

Director General of the Department of Air Transport Authority, Karma Wangchuk said that the present 1,200-metre runway is being extended by 500 metres towards Tamzhing. The work is on track. “An extension by 100 metres is expected to help increase passenger load of the aircraft by about five persons. Once the runway is extended to 1,700 metres, the ATRs can carry almost full passenger loads,” Karma Wangchuk said.

The airport would also have a runway end safety area (RESA), which is absent at present.

RESA is an area symmetrical about the extended runway centre line and adjacent to the end of the strip to reduce the risk of damage to an aeroplane undershooting or overrunning the runway.

Bathpalathang airport

The whole stretch of the runway is also being resurfaced and river protection works are being carried out. The project worth Nu 250 million which began in April is expected to be completed in six months.

A massive terminal building was also built through the Asian Development Grant (ADB) keeping in mind future prospects to upgrade Bathpalathang into an international airport. Karma Wangchuk said with the change in the tourism policy and if the market does well, people might want to fly to regional airports like Kolkata, Kathmandu, Bangladesh and Guwahati from Bathpalathang. “We would not have to construct all over when the need comes with commercial viability. We are planning and being ahead of the demand.”

Yonphula, the most viable domestic airport is also being extended towards the hill creating RESA by cutting the hill. “Today, if the aircraft overruns, the strip would hit the cliff. We are extending it by about 150-200 metres.”

Karma Wangchuk said that the excavation work started in June. The 59M worth of government-funded project is expected to be completed by next June.

He said that at this time of the year, flights couldn’t land at Yonphula most of the time due to bad weather. He said the flights have to return to Paro if they can’t land in Yonphula. “Otherwise it is the most economically viable airport among other domestic airports.”

“Bathpalathang airport used to do well because of tourists in the past, but now Yonphula airport is doing better because of the locals flying.”

Meanwhile, the master plan to upgrade Gelephu airport to an international airport is readied. The master plan was done under the ADB grant.

Karma Wangchuk said Gelephu airport will be an alternate international airport in the future should there be a need. “If Paro Airport reaches its capacity or if it gets damaged by natural calamities like earthquake, we should have an alternative.” The airport will be designed for landing big aircraft.

The department is also looking for provisions to protect the area around the airport so that developmental activities could be restricted for upgrading of the airport in future.

There is no flight service to Gelephu for now since there are no people flying.

During the Prime Minister’s visit to Bumthang last month, a businessman asked if Bathpalathang airport could be upgraded to a regional airport. Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering said the relevant agencies are studying the matter.

Karma Wangchuk said that the department was asked to study if the airport could be upgraded to an international airport. “We are ready with the terminal and runway extension but it now will depend on the airline and the government.”

He said, in doing this, Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority has to certify. “If it gets certified, we only need to add two counters for immigration and Bhutan agriculture and food Regulatory Authority.”