Much work remains to be done if the country is to be ready for that kind of a disaster

Aviation: The need to expand Paro international airport has become a more urgent issue following the April 25 earthquake in Nepal.

Tribhuvan international airport in Kathmandu proved a major bottleneck for relief efforts as a result of congestion issues after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. 

Like Paro airport, it has only one runway and a small number of parking bays for aircraft.

In comparison, Paro airport is in a more dire position, should a major earthquake strike Bhutan.  Paro airport’s runway is shorter, which means larger aircraft than the Airbus A319 or A320 cannot be accommodated, and there are even less parking bays than Tribhuvan.

Paro airport’s aircraft parking capacity of five aircraft has already been exceeded.  Seven aircraft currently operate to the airport already resulting in congestion on certain days.

However, efforts to expand the parking area for aircraft or apron are more likely now with the government of India (GoI), external affairs joint secretary (north),  Abhay Thakur, recently pointing out that GoI was open to relocating the Indian air force (IAF) camp at Paro airport.  The IAF camp is located on an area where aviation authorities want to expand the apron.

The Department of Air Transport (DAT) is also planning to construct a taxiway that runs parallel to the runway. The taxiway will allow aircraft to move off the runway or onto it in less time which will allow more flights to operate to Paro airport. Such an infrastructure will be crucial given that the number of daily flights is limited as operations can occur only during daylight hours and good weather.

However, the taxiway’s construction is still dependent on budget.  While GoI has committed Nu 680 million for expansion efforts, it has done so only in principle, and the government is yet to receive the fund.  As a result, the government has been requested to pre-finance the construction of the taxiway. “In the disaster perspective, we have to prioritise that … we don’t know when disaster strikes, we have to be ready now,” information and communications secretary Dasho Kinley Dorji said.

Another impediment to expansion work has been the delay in construction of a new bridge by the roads department connecting Bondey to Tshongdu. 

“We want to increase the runway safety end area at the north, but we can’t do it just now due to the delay in constructing the bridge,” DAT officiating director, Karma Wangchuk, said. He added that the airport is planning to close off that area soon.

“If expansion work moves as planned, we should be able to park around 20 aircraft, fully utilising all space available,” he added. 

Even if aircraft parking capacity is increased, another challenge presented by Paro airport will be its geographical terrain.

Unlike Tribhuvan airport, Paro airport is located in a narrow valley and requires familiarity, as the approach is based only on visual flight rules or manual input by the pilot.  Foreign aircraft and pilots operating to Paro airport are already required by the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority to have a Drukair pilot onboard to serve as a guide.

Drukair CEO Tandin Jamso said that the national airline had 12 sets of pilots, which is about two and half sets for each aircraft.  He said that, including private airline Tashi Air’s set of pilots, there should be an adequate number to serve as guides for foreign aircraft assisting Bhutan during a disaster.   

However, if Paro airport’s runway was damaged by an earthquake, fixed-wing aircraft operations will be out of the question. 

In the event of cracks occurring on the runway, the repair time could range from a day to weeks, depending on size, said Karma Wangchuk.

There is also no data available to the DAT on whether the Paro airport runway can survive a magnitude 7+ earthquake.

Expansion of domestic airports

This raises the need for alternative airports in the country that can accommodate larger aircraft, like the A319, should Paro airport be damaged.

The CEOs of both Drukair and Tashi Air said that Gelephu domestic airport has the potential of serving as a back up to Paro.  As it is located on flat terrain, the airport, if expanded, will do away with the need for having Bhutanese guide pilots on board foreign aircraft given that approach and take off would be much simpler. Larger aircraft may also be able to operate to the airport and adverse weather conditions may not be as large a factor.

However, Dasho Kinley Dorji said there were no specific plans regarding the expansion of Gelephu. 

But the secretary also pointed out that Batpalathang domestic airport in Bumthang had potential to be expanded but only in the long term.

While Yonphula domestic airport is currently being repaired, larger aircraft will not be able to operate there, given the hill face at one end of the runway.

Other options

If large fixed-wing aircraft cannot operate into Bhutan as a result of the disaster, the only other option is to use airports located close to the country.

The government is identifying airports in Bhutan’s vicinity that could be used by assisting countries to drop off relief material, which would then be transported into Bhutan by helicopters and smaller fixed-wing aircraft, if possible.

However, the government will first have to reach agreements for such a move to be possible.

Dasho Kinley Dorji said the government is also currently identifying all helipads in the country.  There are about 70 helipads in Bhutan.

“We have to make arrangements so that people can be evacuated when necessary, help can come in if necessary, and distributed internally,” he said.  He added that helipads and sites that can serve as helipads had to be identified, so that relief teams would know where to set up.

While the government has set aside Nu 600 million for the establishment of helicopter services in the 2015-16 budget, a major disaster may require many more choppers than the number pledged by the government.

Dasho Kinley Dorji said more helicopters would most likely be offered by assisting countries, but that arrangements would also have to be made to acquire such assistance.

By Gyalsten K Dorji