A joint investigation team has come up with a list of recommendations 

Aviation: As part of an effort to prevent long queues of arriving passengers forming at Paro international airport, an investigation team has recommended that airlines only accept passengers travelling with a passport and also comply with a requirement to space out flights with at least 30 minutes in between, among others.

The investigation team was formed on the directives of the Prime Minister after a queue of around 400 passengers stretched from the immigration counters and out onto the apron or parking area for aircraft at the airport on April 2. It was not the first time such a situation occurred.

Department of Immigration director general Thinley Wangchuk said the joint team, which also comprised of Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) officials, found that on April 2, four flights had landed one after another and as a result, the arrival hall could not accommodate all the passengers.

It was also found that two of the eight immigration counters were not operational that day given connectivity problems.

Thinley Wangchuk said that as an immediate measure five new computers were installed at the immigration counters and a laptop has been kept has backup.

The immigration department has also stationed an ICT officer at the airport to address such network problems when they arise.

The width of the queue lane was also reduced and unnecessary furniture removed so that the lane can be lengthened and more passengers accommodated inside the arrival hall.

However, Thinley Wangchuk said that it was not an issue of immigration formalities taking long.

The team surveyed 78 passengers and it was also found that on average, each passenger took 40 seconds at an immigration counter.

Thinley Wangchuk said 40 seconds is already much less than in some regional airports and that given pressure to speed up the process, a standard preliminary procedure of having the officer physically verify a passport to determine for any abnormalities has even been done away with.

However, he said the survey did not account for regional passengers carrying other kinds of travel documents such as voter identification cards. He added that the immigration department has proposed to the government that the airlines be able to accept only passengers travelling with a passport. He pointed out that on average a passenger using a travel document other than a passport takes 2-3 minutes to handle as the officer at the counter has to revert to a manual process.

Regional travellers entering Bhutan by road will still be able to travel with identification documents other than a passport if the proposal is accepted, the director general clarified.

For the long term, the immigration department is looking to establish an automatic clearance facility for Bhutanese citizens, frequent fliers, and resident foreigners. The counter will not be manned and travellers would be responsible for scanning their own passports and fingerprints themselves. But establishing such a facility will still be subject to funding, said the director general.

Both departments will also study the pros and cons of doing away with arrival and departure forms.

But Thinley Wangchuk pointed out that if due diligence is followed, such as distribution and filling up of arrival forms in the aircraft, then it has no impact on time taken at the immigration counter. He said that there were still many countries like Thailand and Japan that still required the forms. He added that the forms can serve as evidence in a court of law as it has the signature of the traveller if an incident were to occur.

Recently, Indian immigration did away with the need to fill up departure forms by foreigners and arrival forms by Indians.

Despite the average time taken at the immigration counters and other measures, Thinley Wangchuk said that the arrival hall would still fill up beyond capacity if many flights arrived at the same time.

The joint team asked the DCA to remind the two airlines of a circular to keep at least 30 minutes in between arriving flights. But Thinley Wangchuk acknowledged that bad weather could affect flight arrivals causing several to arrive around the same time. He said that in such instances it was unavoidable but when weather is not a factor, it is preventable.

However, following such a requirement will be a challenge for the two airlines.

Drukair CEO Tandin Jamso said that there will demand for additional and charter flights during the tourist seasons and that such a requirement could affect connectivity. He explained that to increase utilisation, one Drukair aircraft usually covers two sectors a day. He added that if there is a delay anywhere along the routes, it could cause the aircraft to halt for the night outside Bhutan given that Paro is already limited to daylight operations, leading to increased costs for the national airline. He also said that 2015 is a Visit Bhutan year and connectivity should not be disrupted.

Tashi Air CEO, Phala Dorji said that the requirement would require changes being made to the time slots already acquired in international airports and this would be difficult. He explained changing the time slots at an international airport would have a chain effect affecting many other airlines and this could prove a challenge.

DCA chief administrative officer Karma Wangchuk said that the department has recommended that a task force is formed to further eliminate all unnecessary procedures and requirements.

By Gyalsten K Dorji