That Paro airport’s runway requires expansion to conform with international standards but is being held up as a result of lack of funds and challenges in acquiring private land should raise some concerns.
Air traffic has increased significantly since commercial air services began in the early 80s. We now have a total of three companies operating a total of seven aircraft operating at the airport with an eighth expected in May or June.
Both passenger, aircraft, and vehicular traffic will continue to expand.
Compared to flight operations in other countries like India or Thailand, the amount of traffic on a single day at Paro is small. But given the geography which results in requirements like operations being limited to good weather and day-light hours, that small amount of traffic can converge into a few hours resulting in congestion.
This congestion could get worse down the years even with mitigating efforts such as the building of a parallel taxi way, an expanded apron, and a widened runway.
Space is a big problem at Paro airport and expanding it to allow flight operations throughout the day and night would probably require much private land and already constructed infrastructure to be acquired. Any such effort would be daunting to any government of the day.
That is why it is probably time that the government begin putting in place the building blocks to expand one of its domestic airports into an international one.
Of the three domestic airports, only Bumthang and Gelephu would make sense.
Bumthang is a top tourist destination and could serve as an entry and exit point for tourists. Traveling to the east or west or both.
But despite Bumthang’s valley being wider than Paro’s, the same problem would eventually confront an international airport there: limited land as a result of the mountains. Weather could also hinder operations there as it already does during the summer. At most, Bumthang could serve as a secondary international airport faced with the same challenges Paro does.
That is why Gelephu holds the most potential. If expanded into an international airport with the required infrastructure, it could become an all-weather, all-day and night airport for Bhutan.
While our airlines already do not compromise on safety and have displayed this through their many years of operations in such a challenging environment, an international Gelephu airport would mean even safer operations.
Obviously, an international airport at Gelephu would need to be reliably connected by air to the country’s other airports and by shorter and wider roads to the rest of the country, especially the capital city.
The amount of funds required would be enormous. But any good investment eventually pays off, if not now, for the benefit of generations later. Besides providing a constant air-link to our land locked nation, one of the significant advantages of having a large airport in Bhutan would be its ability to compliment regional airports and serve a large number of relief aircraft during any times of disaster, not only in Bhutan but the region as well. We have seen how Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu, the only one capable of handling large aircraft, was affected during the earthquake last year.
The economic sustainability of maintaining a large airport could be a concern. Most airports globally, apart from major hubs, run at a loss according to reports in the international media. But they also say that profitability largely depends on the type of management in place, whether the airport is privately owned or state managed.
Niches can be identified and strategies pursued to make airports more attractive to airlines and travelers. Once Bhutan has its own all weather airport there is no reason why it cannot compete internationally on an equal basis.