Phub Dem

Pongchula ridge in Mongar is found not feasible to develop an international airport, according to a feasibility report carried out by the Department of Air Transport (DoAT) and the National Land Commission.

The report stated that although there is no obstacle observed along the flight path in both directions within the distance of 10km from the airport, the site is not feasible due to essential requirements such as field lengths, aligned ridge, wind direction, and significant expenses to align the runway.

The technical report concluded that the field length of 920 metres in Pongchula was not adequate to operate the smallest fleet, which is currently operating in Yonphula.

The minimum requirement for a runway to fly the smallest aircraft in the country (ATR42-600) is 1,200ms. The total field length available for constructing the ridge in Pongchula can support a runway of only 920 metres.

According to the director general of DoAT, Karma Wangchuk, the minimum airfield length in Bumthang restricts the load capacity.

He said ATR ferry only 18 passengers out of 40 during summer which is why the department is extending the Bumthang runway and increasing the capacity to 30.

The report stated that Pongchula ridge is not aligned and there is a need to level the ground to construct the runway and the landside facilities such as apron, passenger terminal building, control tower, car parking, and firefighting station.

Besides, the wind direction is considered most important factor undermining the potential of establishing an airport as per the report.

The weather data from May to September last year indicates the frequency of the wind to be maximum from the northeast direction, but the runway is oriented along the ridge from north to south.

The five-month data shows the evidence of a strong crosswind, which will limit the window of air operations and is considered hazardous for flight operations.

Karma Wangchuk said that cross-wind is unsafe for aviation and should be avoided.

The report stated that if considered for development,  site development works will cost the government in billions, which will not justify the investment for a runway length of 920m, suitable for smaller aircraft with wingspan less than 15 meters.

With the construction of Pongchula airport unlikely, the department is exploring other possible areas, and the options are kept open.

According to the director general, the pandemic delayed deploying the teams to study the potential areas and the department was working on exploring possible locations for the airport, adding that they also hired aerodrome engineers from outside.

He said that the best option, for now, is to extend the Gelephu airport and the department is awaiting the master plan. “We will have the master plan within three months and have acquired around 700 acres of land.”

It is learnt that there are a few potential areas in the southern belt but areas in the central and east are mountainous, usually unsuitable for airfields.

DoAT is also extending the Yonphula runway and enhancing safety by 25 percent.

The report is submitted to the government.

Various feasibility studies have been carried out to establish an airport at Pongchula since the possibility of converting the ridge into a potential airport has surfaced in 2018.

Mongar’s member of parliament, Karma Lhamo, during the by-election in May, pledged to accelerate the development of the Pongchula international airport.