Bhutan’s aviation gamble

SOME DECISIONS are implausible, such as the one Royal Bhutan Airlines or Drukair made to fly to Bangkok via Assam capital Guwahati from 31 October 2010.

Why should an airline, government-owned or otherwise, choose to operate on a loss-making international circuit Air India abandoned eight years ago? The answer lies in Bhutan’s terrain.

Bhutan, geographically, is much like the Northeast Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya.

In Meghalaya or Abode of Clouds, you can’t drive through the hills from state capital Shillong to second largest town Tura. You have to take a 295 km detour via Guwahati and trouble-prone plains of adjoining Assam.

Traveling from one part of Arunachal Pradesh or Sunrise Province to another is tougher. It’s easier and more comfortable to drive 556 km from Tawang town on the northeastern tip to Guwahati than making the 580 km from Tawang to state capital Itanagar. Tawang-Itanagar is at most 350 km as the crow flies.

Likewise, moving from Itanagar to southern Arunachal Pradesh town Tezu is a 690 km torture through at least seven Assam districts. Tezu, otherwise, is sited 300 km from Itanagar.

This, though, isn’t half the trouble some 500,000 people of six dzongkhags (districts) of eastern Bhutan endure to be terrestrially linked with capital city Thimphu. For them, it’s a 550-700 km drive on perhaps the worst roads in the Northeast, a foreign country. More importantly, their route is through the most violence-prone districts of northern and western Assam.

If you keep a quarter of these 500,000 in the loop, Drukair’s decision to tread AI’s unviable flight path doesn’t seem to be a suicidal soar. A global dream has to ride on a local need? So be it.

Considering a quarter of eastern Bhutan’s population can afford to fly, they can sustain the Paro-Guwahati-Bangkok flight even if the Guwahati-Bangkok sector has few takers.

Paro, at an elevation of 7300 ft, is Bhutan’s only airport 58 km from Thimphu.

Drukair’s CEO Tandin Jamso is upbeat. “We studied the pros and cons for two years before deciding to launch this flight,” he says. He hopes his Rs 1.6 billion airline, with plans to fly to Hong Kong and Singapore, can sustain its “global via Guwahati” operation unlike AI.

A reason is Drukair’s inter-regional focus with Kathmandu, Dhaka and major Indian metropolises on the radar. Another – more important to Bhutan’s internal affairs – is eastern Bhutan’s communication bottlenecks.

“It would be faster and more cost-effective for the eastern Bhutanese to travel 90 km from Samdrup Jongkhar (southern Bhutan town bordering Assam) to Guwahati and take the 50-minute flight to Paro than driving on the long and tiresome roads,” says Dasho Tsering Wangda, Bhutan’s Kolkata-stationed consul general.

The Paro-Guwahati flight costs Rs 3,000 one way.

The 19-year-old Drukair also hopes to cash in on the increasing trend of Indian, European and American tourists packaging Bhutan with the Northeast. “Our flight to and from Bagdogra (West Bengal) is doing well for two years now. This (Guwahati) should too,” says Jamso.


About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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