Sonam Penjor, 87, remembered how his family took weeks to reach Thimphu from their home in Mongar when he was a young boy.
He said that after a few decades, it took him two days to reach the city from his home. “Today, it took me only 45 minutes on Drukair’s domestic flight.”
He came to the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital with his wife for treatment.
“Considering the bad road conditions due to heavy snowfall, travelling by air is convenient,” Sonam Penjor said. “It also helps us receive timely medical intervention.”
It was learnt that most passengers of domestic flights are college students, who said that it was cheaper travelling via air, considering potential expenditures, including food, lodging, and duration.
Drukair saw an increase in domestic passenger demand since the pandemic, as there are no tourist passengers on the domestic routes.
Drukair operated three flights a week to Yonphula and one to Bumthang. However, there have been no flight operations to Gelephu since last year.
According to the Ministry of Information and Communication Statistical Report, in 2021, domestic air passengers increased by about 37 percent in comparison to 2020. A total of 8,899 passengers availed the domestic air services.
The domestic air sector saw a gradual increase from 2,725 passengers in 2013 to 15,906 in 2019. The number of passengers was significantly reduced to 6,509 in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Drukair operated 26 additional flights to meet passenger demand, mostly students during college closing and opening times.
The domestic flight generated a total revenue of about Nu 33 million last year.
The airline also had to cancel 136 flights to Yonphula and Bumthang routes because of lockdown and bad weather.
According to Drukair Chief Executive Officer Tandi Wangchuk, the higher-paying tourist usually cross-subsidizes domestic travellers, but the company manages to sustain the domestic operation in the absence of tourists.
Drukair increased the domestic airfare to Nu 4,032 for one way and Nu 7,056 for round trip.
According to the company, the slight increase was in line with the expected growth caused by the increased consumer pricing index.
He said the airline fuel rate, operational costs such as additional PPE cost for the employees, restrictive quarantine for operating crew after each flight, and other flight handling charges hiked the airfare.
Tandi Wangchu said that the total cost of travelling from Paro to Trashigang, including cab fare, food and lodging along the way, was almost at par with the airfare. “Still, considering the convenience and time, the airfare is reasonably low.”
He added that Drukair made transport arrangements between Thimphu and Paro during movement restrictions for its affected passengers. “Drukair also made its call centre more robust for any queries and enabled online payments for ticket purchases.”