Aviation: More than three years after it was inaugurated, Gelephu domestic airport received its first scheduled flight, yesterday.

The national airline, Drukair, flew seven revenue paying local passengers and four government guests, including the information and communications secretary to Gelephu from Paro. From Gelephu, the airline picked up the information and communications minister and other government officials on its return flight to Paro via Bumthang.

The airline will conduct two flights a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays to Gelephu.

The promotional fare for Bhutanese is currently Nu 6,000 for a return ticket to Gelephu, and Nu 3,500 for a one way ticket. The flight time between Paro and Gelephu is 45 minutes.

Foreigners will be charged USD 250 for a return trip and USD 140 one way.

Drukair CEO, Tandin Wangchuk said that commercially the flights will not be financially sustainable and that the airline is simply following the government’s directive. “We’re respecting a government directive and we’re operating,” he said.

The government instructed Drukair to begin flying scheduled operations to Gelephu in April and in November.

He pointed out that Drukair would operate to Gelephu even if there is only one passenger flying one way. But when there are no passengers, the airline will not operate.

The CEO said that the government could make the business more sustainable for Drukair if it were to provide aviation fuel facilities at Gelephu domestic airport. Up to 30 percent of the cost of a flight is spent on fuel.

Department of Air Transport (DAT) director, Karma Wangchuk said that it may not be commercially viable for the Bhutan Oil Distributor to have in place aviation fuel facilities at Gelephu given the potentially low number of flights to the airport. However, he said that the DAT will ask the fuel company.

Tandin Wangchuk also said that the government should consider expanding Gelephu airport so that both airlines can use it to temporarily halt there when there is bad weather at Paro international airport. He said this would be a cheaper alternative than having to halt at Kolkata or Bagdorgra.

Karma Wangchuk said that there are plans to eventually expand the airport but that significant costs would be involved. He said any expansion would depend on the government and fund availability.

Tandin Wangchuk did not rule out Drukair approaching the government later on if it is found that the route remains unsustainable.

The erstwhile Department of Civil Aviation constructed the airport at a cost of Nu 225.3 million. A further Nu 9 million was spent to build a new terminal at the airport when the runway had to be shifted and it was found that the first terminal was located too far away.

Gyalsten K Dorji