RBHSL slashes hiring charge for highlanders

Yangchen C Rinzin 

If the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services (RBHS) had come to the rescue of highlanders in the country, this time, it is the highlanders that have come to save the RBHS.

Highlanders from Lunana, Laya and Lingzhi are the main customers of RBHS with the coronavirus bringing business from tourist to a complete halt. With highlanders returning home, the chopper service is in demand.

Considering the downturn in business and the need of the highlanders, besides the impact of the virus of highlanders, RBHS also reduced the charges. RBHS charges about Nu 150,000 per hour to highlanders. It is a steady source of revenue to the RBHS.

Although bookings for helicopter services have reduced due to Covid-19, the highlanders continue to use the service. Recognising this, RBHS has reduced the charge to Nu 100,000 per hour.

While highlanders bear 50 percent of the hiring charge, the government as a subsidy to the people in the mountains bear the other half.

RBHS chief executive officer (CEO), Chhewang Gyeltshen, said that the company decided to reduce the charge to attract the highlanders and make them continue to hire choppers.

“Although the company is faced with loss because of Covid-19, we still reduced the charges, as highlanders are still using the services,” he said. “This would encourage them to use the chopper, which is also good for us to generate revenue.”

The CEO said that following the outbreak of coronavirus and the first Covid-19 case on March 5, RBHS has been affected on the commercial front.  

“The entire tourist bookings from March till May (36 hours) were cancelled,” he said. The company has also refunded tourists.

Chhewang Gyeltshen said that the company lost Nu 12 million in revenue that the company was supposed to earn from these bookings. Tourists pay in dollars where an hourly fee of USD 4,375 per hour is charged.

Tourists usually book the chopper to see places like Jomolhari, Gangtey, Bumthang and Laya. As of now, there are no tourists in the country.

Chhewang Gyeltshen said that although the local bookings have dropped after the first Covid-19 patient was reported to have visited Punakha, it has now started picking up since there is no local transmission reported.

RHBS also provides services like fire fighting, medical/case evacuation, cargo/freight transport, and passenger transport.

“The company’s revenue is already down by 11 percent for the targeted budget of Nu 41M for the first quarter of 2020 budget (January till March),” the CEO said. “We generated only about 36M so far compared to the Nu 38M generated in the same period last year.”

He added it would be challenging to meet the second quarter (April till June) target should the pandemic worsen. The company spends almost Nu 7.2M as working capital every month.

“We were able to contribute Nu 11M dividend to the finance ministry last year. The chances are slim this year,” said the CEO. However, he said that the services for emergency flight and medical evacuation would continue.

“We’re also ready to provide any kinds of services required in terms of Covid-19 situation like airlifting samples, transport medical experts and equipment.”

The helicopters in March airlifted a Covid-19 sample from Bumthang to Thimphu. It cost Nu 150,000 per hour.

On April 19, one of the two helicopters evacuated a female patient from Dorokha, Samtse to the national referral hospital. This takes to a total of 601 patients evacuated since November 2015.