Neten Dorji

Trashigang – Yonphula domestic airport has become synonymous with disappointment for passengers, including international tourists, students, civil servants, patients, and elderly individuals. The airport has witnessed a troubling trend of flight cancellations due to adverse weather conditions.

Since Drukair resumed domestic flights to Trashigang and Gelephu on November 11, 2017, a staggering total of 202 flights to Yonphula have been cancelled. Bumthang’s domestic airport recorded 33 flight cancellations due to weather, followed by 11 cancellations to Gelephu, which has been suspended since 2021.

Out of the three domestic airports in Bhutan, Yonphula in Trashigang holds the record for the highest number of flight cancellations due to unfavourable weather.

Over the past six years and eight months, Drukair incurred losses exceeding Nu 37 million due to domestic flight cancellations. On average, each cancelled domestic sector cost Drukair around Nu 92,300, according to officials.

From 2017 to 2022, a total of 34,691 people used domestic flights. In the last eight months, approximately 4,188 people opted for domestic flights.

The irregularity in flight operations at Yonphula has left many passengers disheartened. Unexpected flight cancellations have deterred residents, students, officials, and tourists from choosing air travel.

Tourists and their guides sometimes experience misunderstandings when visitors’ schedules are disrupted by flight cancellations. Most travellers prefer air to surface transport because of safety, among other reasons.

A woman expressed her disappointment, stating, “I am pregnant, so taking the road wasn’t advised. But, flight cancellation disappointed us when we had to make a cab reservation to go back home.”

Civil servants noted that students, in particular, prefer air travel, as road conditions deteriorate during the monsoon and winter months. However, with frequent flight cancellations, students often have no choice but to resort to road travel, which they perceive as riskier.

Unlike in the past, when flights were cancelled due to weather, affected passengers are now asked to wait for the next scheduled flights when accommodation cannot be arranged.

Efforts are underway to develop a suitable flight schedule to minimise disruptions.

Tandin Wangchuk, CEO, explained that Yonphula’s location on top of a hill with only one approach and landing side makes landing during the summer challenging, especially due to fog and visibility issues.

To reduce inconvenience to passengers and minimise costs arising from cancellations, Drukair plans to reduce domestic flight frequencies during the monsoon season—July, August, and September.

Drukair ensures scheduled flights are least affected by exploring substitute flights if the ATR to Yonphula is cancelled. The number of flights to Yonphula has been reduced to two per week from three due to weather conditions, operating mostly via Bumthang.

Sangay Minjur, station manager, said, “Due to strong winds toward the afternoon, it becomes difficult for us in fleet allocation to operate regional and domestic flights with only one ATR. Flight is suitable only from mid-October to May.”