High flying

Yonphula

Domestic air services were formally launched yesterday, coinciding with our 104th National Day. Druk Air flew their ATR-42 from Paro to Yonphula to Bumthang and back to Paro. And Tashi Air’s Pilatus PC-12 flew from Paro to Bumthang and back. The lucky passengers in the inaugural flight included the Speaker, MOIC minister, Members of Parliament and senior civil servants.

So, after missing several ambitious deadlines, domestic air services have finally begun. Truth be told, I had my doubts. Having spent three years in Kanglung in the 1980s, as a student in Sherubtse College, I was all too familiar with the weather conditions in Yonphula. The Yonphula ridge, where the airstrip is located, seemed to be forever shrouded in mist. And when it wasn’t, strong winds seemed to stage a relentless attack on the ridge. Or it would just rain, continuously, for weeks on end.

But the government has done it. Domestic air services are now a reality. I’m happy. And I’m grateful that the government has succeeded in opening up Yonphula and Bumthang to air traffic. There’s no doubt that the air services to these areas will boost the economies of central and eastern parts of our country through increased tourist arrivals and investments in related areas.

So congratulations are in order, first and foremost to Lyonpo Nandalal Rai, the MOIC minister. Then to the Department of Civil Aviation. And to Druk Air. And Tashi Air. Domestic air travel is possible because of their hard work. Well done. And thank you.

Photo credit: BBS

Nu confidence

Bhutan airlines?

The government recently approved airfares for our two airlines. This is how the fares were reported in Kuensel:

Druk Air is charging USD 170 (single) and USD 340 (return) for Paro-Bumthang, while Bhutan Air will charge USD 250 (single) and USD 400 (return).

For Paro-Trashigang, Druk Air is charging USD 215 (single) and USD 430 (return). Bhutan Air is charging USD 350 (single) and USD 600 (return).

From Bumthang to Trashigang, Druk Air will cost USD 110 (single) and USD 220 (return), while Bhutan Air costs USD 150 (single) and USD 250 (return).

When I read the fares, two questions immediately came to my mind: why so expensive? And why USD?

The answer to the first is straightforward. The fares are expensive because operating costs are high. And unless domestic air travel becomes unexpectedly popular, both the airlines may incur losses, in spite of the government’s generous subsidies.

The answer to the second question is not so straightforward. Why, indeed, are domestic fares denominated in US dollars?

All goods and services in Bhutan should be priced in ngultrum. Unless, that is, we lack confidence in our own currency. And that shouldn’t be the case. Firstly, the ngultrum is pegged to the Indian rupee. And secondly, if air tickets were priced in ngultrum, foreigners would, anyway, have to pay US dollars to buy the ngultrums to purchase their air tickets.

Hard currency would come into the country in any case. So it may seem that there’s no difference whether foreigners pay for their air tickets in US dollars or ngultrums. Actually, there is a difference. If the tickets were priced in ngultrums, banks – and the Royal Monetary Authority – would automatically be more involved in the US dollar transactions and, as such, would also be better able to regulate the movement of foreign currencies.

But more importantly, we would demonstrate to foreigners, and ourselves, that we have confidence in our own currency. And that confidence is crucial for economic growth.

Photo credit: Kuensel

Domestic air service

"National" airline

The government has reassured us that domestic air services will begin by its October 1st deadline. But, with barely three months left, the government is yet to decide who will run the domestic airline. On 16th June, Kuensel reported that:

Four companies submitted proposals by the February 12 deadline. Two companies, national airline Drukair, and a UK based company, Route Network LLP, were identified on May 7, by an inter-ministerial committee. The final decision was then left to the cabinet.

Of the two proposals it appears that the government favours Route Network LLP. Kuensel, on 26th June:

With Drukair being the national flag carrier, the cabinet does not want to risk adversely affecting its international “image” or standards with additional responsibilities, a senior government official said. Because of this concern, and an impending deadline of October 1, the government is considering additional demands by the other company to have been identified, Route Network LLP.

One proposal was submitted by Druk Air, a Bhutanese company, and one that has almost three decades of unblemished experience in the aviation business.

The other proposal was submitted by Route Network LLP, a foreign company, and one that we know virtually nothing about. (I can’t link to the company website, because I can’t even find one.)

If both the proposals are more or less equal, the government should award the contract to Druk Air. After all, the government should actively support our own companies over foreign ones. If, for whatever reason, the government is not willing to do so, it should at least ensure that foreign companies are not given undue advantage.

So I’m concerned to learn that the government may be leaning towards Route Network LLP. So much so that they are willing to consider the “additional demands by the other company to have been identified, Route Network LLP”.

The banner, a photograph by Yeshey Dorji, is a reminder that Druk Air is able and willing to begin domestic operations. That would add to their “image”, not take away from it.

Best commercial flight?

High flying

High flying

Wanderlust, a leading British travel magazine, has rated Paro International Airport as the world’s second best airport to fly into, behind Singapore’s Changi International Airport. That is good news.

But what about the world’s best commercial flight route? Have you seen a ranking of the world’s best regular commercial flight routes? I haven’t. And, I’m not sure that such a ranking exists. But if there was one, I’m certain that Druk Air’s Paro – Katmandu sector would win hands down. Consider the pilot’s typical greeting to passengers traveling on that sector:

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard this Druk Air flight from Paro to Kathmandu. The flight time is approximately one hour, and the flight route will take you over the town of Paro, fly up to Taksang Monastery, and turn back over the airport, after which we will set course west on a westerly direction, exiting Bhutan over the town of Sipsoo, flying into India for a short while flying over the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling a little South of Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, and then flying parallel to the Himalayas all the way to Katmandu. For those of you seated on the right of the aircraft, you’ll see a few of the world’s highest mountains including Mount Jumolhari, one of the highest and most sacred mountains in Bhutan.

Coming up on your right is Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world measuring 8,586 meters or 28,170 feet above mean sea level. In the distance, beyond the mountains, you can see the Great Tibetan Plateau. The passengers on the left of the aircraft will able to see the Great Northern Indian Plains.

On your right is Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain measuring 8,848 meters or 29,028 feet above mean sea level. It is the peak in the middle, shaped like a pyramid. The peak in front of Everest is Lhotse, the world’s fourth highest peak, measuring 8,560 meters or 27,940 feet.  The mountain all by itself, on the right of Everest, is Mt Makalu, the fifth highest mountain measuring 8,463 meters or 27,766 feet.

Up ahead, as we begin our descent into Katmandu, some of you will be able to see Gauri Shangkhar, a mountain that Hindus consider sacred.

On this short journey passengers can see the highest mountain and four of world’s five highest peaks. They can also see two sacred mountains, the Tibetan plateau and the Indian plains. Plus they can  experience the extraordinary flight into or out of the Paro valley. All this means that, in my opinion, the Paro – Katmandu sector could easily be the world’s best regular commercial flight route.

Druk Air’s new route

high flying dragon

high flying dragon

A few times in past, incoming Druk Air flights have been diverted to Bagdogra due to unfavourable weather conditions over Paro. Such diversions are generally unwelcome by passengers and crew alike as they are required to spend hours in Bagdora waiting for the weather to improve in Paro.

Yesterday’s flight from Paro to Bagdogra was different. It was scheduled. And it was welcome. Bhutanese living in Phuentsoling and Samtse, and those who have work in Siliguri or Darjeeling will find Druk Air’s latest service to Bagdogra very useful. And as the only air service allowed to use Bagdogra as an international airport, Druk Air’s flights to and from Bagdogra will prove very beneficial to Indians living in the northern part of West Bengal and Sikkim.

Yeshey Dorji’s photograph of Druk Air flying above the Paro Dzong is featured in the photo banner to celebrate Druk Air’s success. Well done, Druk Air. And thank you, Yeshey.