The small two-storied terminal building serves both as the control tower and check-in counter. On the ground floor, a large room has a table where as you get in, the ground staff opens your bag and checks for any restricted items. Then you proceed to a weighing machine (the ones you use to weigh potatoes in an auction yard) to check if your luggage is less than 20 kilos. You then hand your ID card and your e-ticket and within seconds, you are given a boarding pass. You are all set to fly off from Yonphula Airport in eastern Bhutan.
Outside the terminal building, inbound passengers have just stepped out of the Drukair ATR72 and are taking pictures of snowcapped mountains in a distance. It is beautiful, no doubt. Meanwhile the concierges are pulling out bags and cartoon boxes from the belly of the aircraft and loading on to a trailer of a farm tractor. There is no arrival hall at Yonphula airport and passengers just lug off their bags at the tarmac and head straight for their cars. This place reminds me of Drukair when started its operation in 1983 out of Paro.
The Yonphula story
Domestic air service to Yonphula was haphazardly inaugurated in 2012 after redeveloping an unused military airfield built in the 1960s. The service was, however, suspended a year later after the lone operator, Druk Air, complained of the “hump” on the runway causing structural damage to their aircraft. It was also rumored that stone chips from the poorly-surfaced runway were either hitting the propeller blades or the belly – and thus, the airport was deemed not safe for commercial use. The whole infrastructure was done up again, which not only included leveling the entire stretch of the runway but also bulldozing off two hillocks on either side of the runway and relocating a choeten(stupa) to another site. It was reopened in 2017 and is the only airport serving the six districts of eastern Bhutan that constitutes a large chuck of the country’s population.
Still, even after the second inning, the airport still poses challenges because of the location and the capricious weather. It stands at 9,000 feet above sea level and is misty and cloudy much of the year. Even on a clear sunny day, the hours of operation are limited to a small window between 6 and 11 in the morning. It is also infamous for winds blowing at hurricane speed by noon until dusk.
The flight is popular
All these challenges have, however, not deterred tourists and Bhutanese from taking the flights to Paro and avoid the 600+ km and two days of bumpy, narrow and winding road along the treacherous Himalayan mountains. On the day I flew, there were 32 passengers, locals and foreigners. The two tourist-standard hotels have benefited from the new airport. The flight is not too smooth either. Severe turbulences, especially on approaching Yonphula, can occur. If that doesn’t bother you, it is like watching a 30-minute of best scenic documentary played out to you from your window – of tall Himalayan peaks panning backwards in a distance, of dreamy clouds passing past your face, and green rugged mountains, virgin forests, beautiful waterfalls and sleepy villages rolling under you.
More than an air link
Yonphula airport is not just about taking a flight to get to your destination or simply to avoid the long and arduous cross-country drive. For me, domestic air links in Bhutan are about nationhood – about bringing the country closer – not just in distance but also together in national harmony, fraternity and solidarity. When we think of national unity, we always think of culture, religion and governance. As a communication practitioner and a scholar, I believe in the vital role that communication and communications can play in achieving it. Some of the finest examples are radio, television and the film industry where we listen to the same news, discuss the same issues and share the same jokes or a song.
We mustn’t forget that Bhutan is a diverse country in terms of culture, language, social traditions and even mindset. And just a generation ago, we identified ourselves by which village or ethnic group we came from – and not so much as Bhutanese. The task of nation-building – as in bringing the country together into a shared vision and a common purpose is still very much a work in progress. Transport and connectivity play an important role. Recent and past discourses on domestic air services have been dominated by techno-economic feasibility and commercial demands and rarely does the topic of its contribution to nationhood and national sovereignty surface. This is either myopic or narrow-minded or both.
What the government can do?
The Royal Government spearheaded by the Ministry of Communications and civil aviation authority should monitor the services closely so that together with the operators they can find ways to provide safe and reliable services. The domestic operations should not be given a secondary treatment to international routes. There should be a dedicated set of aircraft and pilots. All these costs money, for sure. But air services in Bhutan, from what I would guess, was not started to make money only. It had a greater and long-term vision.
The department of air transport could look at making Yonphula (and even Gelephu and Bumthang) an all-weather airport and not resign to vagaries of Mother Nature. Flight cancellations are today a commonplace and immediately done without a second thought. For example, the same flight can take off the next day depending on the weather. The terminal building is bare skeleton. As of now there are no restaurants, airport taxis or ancillary services. The only toilet is not marked if it is for women or for men. And the whole place empties as soon as the flight takes off. With a vibrant and dependable air service, tourism and investments can flow into the region. Natives will visit their hometowns more and businesses concentrated in Thimphu might find it worthwhile to open and operate some affiliates and branches there.
Yonphula is on a mountain top – with an open approach on one side of the runway. Recent advancements in global positioning system (GPS) complemented by ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) allow aircraft to operate in adverse weather conditions in such airports through improved instrument landing systems. While the initial cost may look prohibitive, it may pay off in the long run as the furthest points in Bhutan are within few hours of travel from the power centre in Thimphu. Thinking big and thinking broad is what is needed here.
I have led large infrastructure projects in the past that were deemed impossible and I must say that, in the end, it all boils down to whether we want to do or not. It is not a matter of whether we can or cannot. We can make all our domestic airports more reliable and dependable. We can make connectivity better so that we get closer as a nation – as migration and globalization drift us further apart.
University of Macau