Tashi Air Pvt Ltd relieved the two cabin crew members who tested positive for banned substances over the past three months.

The airline’s chief executive officer, Phala Dorji, said that in the spirit of zero tolerance to such behaviour, the company relieved the two individuals with all retirement benefits. “We wanted to keep the company clean and show that passenger safety is our top priority,” Phala Dorji said.

An air hostess of Bhutan Airlines and a Drukair technician tested positive for controlled substances during the third test on August 2.

In the first joint test, a pilot and a female flight attendant of Drukair and a male flight attendant of Bhutan Airlines tested positive for controlled drugs on June 28 and 29.

A helicopter pilot and a Drukair cabin crew member tested positive during the second such test on July 25 and 26. The two pilots, one each of Drukair and Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service, were retested and found clean.

More than a month later on September 12, three bus drivers, including a non-Bhutanese, tested positive and their license was suspended for six months as per the Road Safety and Transport Act 1999.

This sparked a controversy with many criticising that the airline staff and bus drivers seemed to have been treated differently under the same law. They alleged that the agencies applied the law in a discriminatory manner for the same offence under the same law.

Article 7(15) of the Constitution states “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal and effective protection of the law and shall not be discriminated against on the grounds of race, sex, language, religion, politics or another status.”

All individuals in both the cases only tested positive for consumption of controlled substances but did not possess the substances.

A top Bhutan Narcotic Control Authority (BNCA) official said that this was not the issue of law.

Narcotic Drug Psychotropic Substance and Substance Abuse Act (NDPSSAA) 2015 states that notwithstanding section 161 of the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code of Bhutan, any person who has committed an offence only against section 500 of the Penal Code of Bhutan, shall not be prosecuted for that offence or identified to the public, provided the person voluntarily presents to an approved treatment centre before being arrested or charged for that offence, and then undertakes and successfully completes the treatment without committing any further offence.

Those who tested positive in the airlines’ crew cases have been treated and they resumed duty as well, BNCA officials said.

“The punishment meted out to the bus drivers and airline staff were administrative actions taken by respective agencies. This is not the NDPSSAA applied differently,” a BNCA official said.

The official said that the NDPSSAA 2015 only mandates the individuals to undergo treatment including counselling. The administrative actions were dependent on the respective agencies or employers.

As drug testing was a new initiative, such situations were not mentioned in the Drukair’s service manual. There was no penalty prescribed in its service manual that was drafted in compliance with the Civil Aviation Act 2000, which makes no mention of handling such cases.

Drukair’s employees who tested positive were paid only their basic salary. The pilot’s basic salary was about Nu 30,000 but he earns about Nu 370,000 as allowances. This was based on the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority’s (BCAA) circular which was issued a fortnight before the first test was conducted. The airline has now drafted a new service manual based on the revised Civil Aviation Act 2016.

Those Drukair employees who tested positive were tested every week and they came clean, BNCA officials said.

The BCAA circular stated that it was issued not in response to any known problematic use of alcohol or psychoactive substance within the aviation workplace.

“However, problems due to alcohol and psychoactive substance do exist in the Bhutanese society and therefore the potential for such problems in the aviation workplace cannot be ruled out,” it stated.

Chapter 10 section 147 of the Civil Aviation Act 2016, states that should a person who contravenes any provisions of the Act or rules and regulations not covered in this Act commits an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to penalty prescribed in the circular or rules and regulation and enforcement manual developed and issued under this Act or the Penal Code of Bhutan.

The circular on the prevention of problematic use of alcohol and psychoactive substances by personnel holding license, rating or certificates to engage in safety and security sensitive activities relating to civil aviation was issued to give effect to the provisions of the Act and the applicable standards and procedures described in the Article 37 of the International Civil Aviation Organisation convention.

For the first positive test for any controlled psychotropic substance the employee will be grounded and all his aviation documents suspended until he proves otherwise. A second positive test will lead to cancellation of his license.

For the second positive test of alcohol would lead to suspension of documents for three months and all documents cancelled on the third instance.

Tshering Palden