With mounting losses, the national airline has informed the government that it will stop flying to Gelephu domestic airport from next month.
Once again, the airport will fall silent except for the occasional chartered flight.
Periodically, it will still serve as a helipad for the two helicopters, but a very expensive one. At least Nu 234 million was spent to build it.
Drukair began scheduled services to the airport only because the government directed it. There was not enough traffic to Gelephu. This comes as no surprise. Any further directives to continue the service would be illogical even if there is a government subsidy provided.
In contrast, Batpalathang domestic airport in Bumthang is a busy place. While road widening and therefore poor road conditions on the East-West Highway is one reason for the increased air traffic, Batpalathang airport is in the centre of cultural attractions contributing to high tourist traffic. Sometimes three flights a day to Bumthang are conducted. At times, it is hard to get a seat as well. It is hoped that the government is considering further investing in the airport so that rising passenger demand can be met.
When it comes to Gelephu, there is a need for further development of tourist attractions and associated infrastructure such as hotels, for both local and international tourists.
Once these are in place then we can expect traffic to Gelephu to increase.
While some may say that the airport is a white elephant, they maybe right in the short term. But in the long term, Gelephu airport’s potential is sky high. With a dry port and a free trade zone in the works in Sarpang, businesspeople travelling to Gelephu could provide the traffic an airline needs to sustain.
Besides that, if the airport is expanded, it could serve as a back up airport for both the airline’s larger aircraft when bad weather prevents them from landing in Paro. This would result in significant cost savings for both airlines.
Eventually, the airport could even become an all-weather and 24-hour international airport once there is enough traffic.
The potential is there but planning and action need to follow.