It was quite a spectacle for the thousands of people, who visited Paro over the weekend. The Paro tshechu, the Royal flower exhibition and, to the surprise of many, all the seven aircraft operated by the two Bhutanese airlines were on the ground at the same time.
It was a beautiful sight, as hundreds waited, stranded in a terrible traffic jam on the single lane road that runs beside the airport. Pictures of the seven aircraft, all on the ground, circulated on social media.
They were not grounded, but were being deftly manoeuvred in cramped quarters to allow one another to pass by. Some passengers even had to board or leave the plane in front of a hangar or on the taxiway and walk over the apron on the way to the immigration counters.
From a single 18-seater Dornier aircraft in the 1980s, the country’s only international airport is experiencing a traffic jam now. The government, which runs the airport for now, has not been able to keep up with the growth in the aviation industry in terms of infrastructure.
Our international airport, located in our flattest valley, will always be small, given the mountains. There is hardly any room for expansion. A plan to start another in Gelephu that could have alleviated some of this congestion was cancelled for security reasons a few years back.
So we must make do with Paro airport. And we must ensure the little space that is available is utilised to full potential. The airport’s infrastructure needs to expand.
For a landlocked country, an aviation industry, especially a growing one driven by strong demand to visit Bhutan, is critical. But when the country’s only international airport cannot accommodate this increasing demand, that could cause the aviation authority to limit flights as a result, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.
Paro airport is already considered one of the most challenging airports to operate to. Operations are limited to daylight hours and good weather. There is a small window to operate and we can only expect traffic to increase. This raises the question of safety and of the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s watchful eye that is already frowning disapprovingly on us.
Only recently, the organisation raised safety concerns about weaknesses in Thailand’s oversight capacity, leading to some eastern Asian nations to place limitations on Thai air carriers. Bhutan cannot afford such an event.
Bhutan has had a comparatively excellent aviation safety record in this region. Perhaps, even globally. We must not wait for an accident to take tough, but reasonable decisions.
There are enough reasons, both in terms of aviation safety and economic security.