Aviation: In a significant development that should solve congestion problems at the Paro international airport, the Indian government has indicated it is open to relocating the Indian air force (IAF) camp there.

The Indian government has also indicated that it is open to modifying its technical assistance to the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA), formerly the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), in reference to management of air traffic services (ATS) within Bhutan.

ATS, which involves providing information to and directing aircraft within Bhutanese airspace is currently handled by the IAF, while Department of Air Transport officials, formerly also the DCA, play an observer role.

The erstwhile DCA had proposed to the information and communications ministry to take over ATS duties at Paro airport as early as at least 2010, when the issue was raised during the government’s mid-term review.

It has claimed since then that it has enough qualified officials to handle the ATS duties.

In a meeting with Bhutanese media in New Delhi on May 6, the Ministry of External Affairs joint secretary (North), Abhay Thakur, said that Paro airport was under the control of Bhutan’s civil aviation authority, referring to the BCAA.

“These aren’t really issues, which can’t be resolved,” he said. “An alternative location, depending on the need of Bhutan, can always be discussed and agreed upon,” he added. “So I don’t think there’s an issue at all, that it can’t be resolved to mutual satisfaction. We can find an alternative location.”

The government has proposed that the IAF camp, also referred to as the air force element or AFE, be relocated to Khangkhu, where an IMTRAT camp is already located.

The relocation was proposed as the aviation authority wanted the space to expand the airport’s apron or parking space for aircraft, and to construct a new domestic terminal and car park.

The apron’s parking capacity of five aircraft has already been exceeded, with seven aircraft operating regularly to Paro airport causing congestion problems at times.

Joint secretary Abhay Thakur pointed out that the Indian element is present at the airport to provide technical assistance. “Basically, helps coordination, given the particular geography in which Bhutan is, and so it’s really a technical assistance that is provided to the DCA (now BCAA) by the Indian aviation support.”

In a 2007 audit of the airport by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), this arrangement was raised as a concern.  As the BCAA is a civilian authority and required to follow international aviation standards, a number of its shortcomings, in terms of licensing, procedures, policy on staffing, among others, being outside its purview were raised in reference to its monitoring of ATS.  This was one of the contributing factors for Bhutan’s  low compliance score with international aviation requirements.

Bhutan’s score is currently the lowest in the region.

Joint secretary Abhay Thakur said that India’s technical assistance could be altered. “And as long as Bhutan requires technical assistance, we’d be happy to provide it. The manner in which it’s provided, the way in which it’s extended, can be worked out,” he said. “So far, it’s working well and we can always discuss further modification on the manner in which it operates,” he added. “We’re only giving you assistance in controlling the airspace in accordance to the wishes of the technical requirement.”

Discussions on relocating the airport have been ongoing since at least 2008.

Gyalsten K Dorji in Thimphu and Sonam Pelden in New Delhi