Year of the Chopper

Yearender/Aviation: The highlight of the aviation sector in the year of the Sheep was undoubtedly the arrival of Bhutan’s first helicopter adorned in the colours of the national flag in November.

Since its arrival, the chopper, which many find “cute”, perhaps because of its oval shaped cabin, has already carried out a number of medical airlifts, and saved a few lives.

So far, the only Bhutanese to have been able to afford riding in the chopper are the Lunaps, who harvest the expensive fungi, cordyceps. Very recently, the Lunaps hired the chopper for a second time to fly home from Punakha cutting their weeklong journey by foot to half an hour.

The second chopper is expected soon.

The national airline, Drukair was often in the news last year. The year began for Drukair by welcoming its newest aircraft, a USD 43 million Airbus A319, equipped with sharklets or wing extensions that improve the aerodynamics of the aircraft and therefore, saves fuel.

The airline registered the aircraft, A5-JSW, in honor of His Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo.

However, following that, the airline’s CEO resigned for personal reasons despite two years remaining on his contract.

Despite acknowledging that the domestic market is too small for two airlines, the government decided that both airlines must operate to all domestic airports. Drukair began operations to Gelephu in November and Tashi Air is required to resume domestic flights by April this year.

The national airline was the subject of much public scorn towards the end of the year when a passenger, who emitted a smell as a result of a medical condition, was de-boarded from the aircraft.

The incident was widely discussed by the public and the media covered the incident extensively.

While the captain acted according to aviation norms, and was cleared by the aviation regulator, Drukair still found it necessary to change the procedures for carrying medical patients as some lapses had occurred.

Offloaded baggage continued to overwhelm Drukair during the winter, as it has in previous ones, as a result of more Bhutanese traveling to Bangkok taking advantage of promotional airfares and packages.

Another major development in the aviation sector involved the relocation of the Indian military’s Air Force camp at Paro airport, freeing up space to extend the apron to allow three-four more aircraft to be parked there. The two governments had been discussing the relocation for over a decade and a mutually acceptable arrangement was finally reached last year.

The aviation regulator’s aviation oversight capabilities also received some much-needed attention.

The erstwhile Department of Civil Aviation was spilt into two, removing a conflict of interest situation, by dividing its regulator and service provider functions.

The government also approved a higher pay for a critical flight safety position that had remained vacant for decades due to attrition to the private sector, which paid such professionals much better.

In what could further improve oversight capabilities in Bhutan, the office of the Cooperative Development of Operational Safety and Continuing Airworthiness Programme – South Asia is moving to Bhutan this year. The regional aviation safety programme could provide Bhutan much needed expertise to consult with when it comes to safety concerns and improvements.

A second larger terminal building in Paro was also inaugurated to keep up with increasing traffic flow in November.

Both airlines, Drukair and Tashi Air also gave away 60 free tickets each to mark the 60th birth anniversary of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo. Tashi Air’s was exclusively for medical patients.

Pilots of both airlines also pledged Nu 12 million over the next ten years to NGO RENEW to honour his Majesty The Fourth Druk Gyalpo, and because it helped women and children and was in need of financial support.

Gyalsten K Dorji

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