Drukair’s New ATR 42-600 To Arrive By July 2019, Set To Boost Travels To East And South-Central Bhutan
The new ATR 42-600 will come with additional features called Sky Vision, equipped with infrared cameras that can see through clouds.
By Younten Tshedup | Kuensel
The reintroduction of domestic flights to Yonphula in the east and Gelephu in the south-central regions of Bhutan on 11 November 2017, have transformed and facilitated the way people travel domestically.
Most people in the east, including highlanders from Merak and Sakteng, preferred flying to travelling by road to Thimphu now, as it saves them both time and money.
Photo: Druk Asia
Some chose to fly in order to experience a new mode of transportation. However, operations of domestic flights remain shrouded with technical glitches and bad weather conditions, deterring air travellers.
Some challenges faced by Drukair’s ATR
For instance, Drukair’s lone ATR used for domestic flights remained grounded in January last year, following technical malfunctions.
The aircraft has also undergone several maintenance sessions, following a technical glitch in one of its engines.
Last month, the ATR was grounded for its periodic maintenance. As a result, all domestic operations were suspended for about three weeks. The flights subsequently resumed on 28 February.
The problem is expected to be resolved with the arrival of the new ATR by July this year. The new ATR 42-600 will replace the old one, joining Bhutan’s national airline, Drukair’s fleet.
Features of the new ATR 42-600
According to officials from Drukair, the new ATR 42-600 will come with additional features called Sky Vision, equipped with infrared cameras that can see through clouds.
The new aircraft also boasts of having a glass cockpit and the airline will be introducing eight J-class (Business-class) seats, taking the total seating capacity to 40.
The ATR 42-600 will cost around USD 18.5 million. Officials said that the current ATR 42-500 will be sold back to the ATR company. Since the aircraft is almost 15 years old, its resale value is expected to drop sharply.
Meanwhile, in terms of passenger traffic, the Gelephu domestic airport in Sarpang has recorded the least number of travellers compared to the two other domestic airports in Bumthang and Trashigang.
Yonphula airport's runway
Photo: Druk Asia
On average, the airport sees around six passengers travelling from Gelephu during flight schedules. On the other hand, Yonphula airport witnessed more than 30 people availing the service.
Some issues faced by residents of Gelephu in relation to the flights
To shed light on this discrepancy, the Gelephu residents complained that there are no air tickets available most of the time.
“Ticket agents in Bhutan Telecom say that all tickets are booked but when we got to the airport, there is hardly anyone boarding from here,” said Kinzang Tshering, a resident.
Drukair officials in Gelephu explained that most of the issues regarding tickets are generated from the system.
“We request people who do not get a ticket from our agents to call us or visit us at the airport. We have been assisting customers with such issues at the airport,” an official said.
The Airport manager with the Department of Air Transport (DoAT) in Gelephu, Sonam Phuntsho said that although there are minimum flight cancellations due to the weather conditions in Gelephu, heavy lightning has also damaged equipment in the past.
A lightning protection system has been installed following the incident in the last fiscal year. Besides that, threats also loom from the two Aipoli river on either side of the runway, especially during summer, according to the airport manager.
“However, after we started conducting seasonal dredging near the two rivers during winter, the risks of the river entering the runway have been reduced.”
The Royal Manas National Parks of Bhutan is near the town of Gelephu.
In recent years, incidents of wild elephants damaging the parameter fencing and weather stations at the airport have also been reported.
However, with security personnel deployed during flights, elephant sightings in the area have decreased, reassured the manager.
This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.