Crucial information was hidden about the Druk Air’s ATR operations raising several questions whether safety issues were compromised
On the eve of Druk Air deciding to stop its domestic flight to Bumthang after it stopped its flight to Trashigang last month, Business Bhutan has unearthed crucial information on how an unfit aircraft was allowed to be used for the domestic route, how conditions were applied to let the aircraft fly and how these conditions were hidden from the public domain for reasons unknown.
The issue raises several questions revolving around the possible compromise of the most paramount issue in aviation – passenger safety – despite stakeholders claiming that safety was not compromised.
The issue now appears to have sparked a controversy between Druk Air and the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA).
Druk Air has reasoned its decision to stop flying to Batpalathang in Bumthang on safety grounds. The airstrip is wearing out and gravels are giving way needing immediate repair.
However, Business Bhutan has found that Druk Air’s flight, the ATR, was never meant to be used in both the domestic airports. Despite that, the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) had allowed the ATR to be used. The DCA accepts that it was an oversight to allow the ATR.
“It was a mistake on the DCA’s part (to allow the ATR),” said the new director general of DCA, Wangdi Gyelsten. He is just a few days old in the office.
DCA officials however backed up its decision saying that initially it did not allow Druk Air to use the ATR. It later allowed the ATR after the Druk Air insisted that it was safe and even conducted test flights to prove it.
The former director general of the DCA, Phala Dorji, told Business Bhutan that the department allowed the ATR only after the test flights were successful which proved that the ATR was safe.
“The runway was ready and if they were not comfortable we would not have approved,” he said. “Experts from COSCAP (COSCAP South Asia is an international Civil Aviation Organization) and DCA were on the flights and they confirmed it,” added Phala Dorji.
Business Bhutan found out that a copy of the master-plan outlining the details of the aircrafts which could and could not be used at the domestic airports were given to the operators long time back.
“The airport is not designed for a heavy aircraft like the ATR,” said the deputy chief aerodrome officer of DCA, Sangay Wangdi. “Smaller aircrafts like the Pilatus, Dornier and Beechcraft were suited for the airport,” he said.
Sangay Wangdi said that the slope at Yongpula and the runway in both airports is still not adequate for the ATR to land and take off. He said the wearing out of the pebbles at the runway in Bumthang could have been caused by heavy landing pressure of the ATR.
The aerodrome officer didn’t rule out the possibility of the ATR also getting damaged in the process. “There are chances hard landing will cause structural damage to the aircraft,” he said.
Later the Druk Air was persistent in using the ATR and conducted the proving flight convincing the DCA committee to give headway.
However, Sangay Wangdi said that the DCA has still not cleared the ATR to use half the runway at both airports which means that it was entirely up to Druk Air to land and take off using only half the runway.
“ATR will never be able to use the full length of the airport unless we correct it,” said Sangay Wangdi. “Gelephu will be designed for handling such aircrafts,” he said.
The DCA had also allowed Druk Air to ferry a maximum of only 20 passengers in its 48-seater ATR for every flight.
Some quarters are questioning why such crucial information about the aircrafts using only half the runway and the 20-passenger ceiling was not made public. “Something was definitely wrong. The public needs to know such crucial information,” said a businessman who chose anonymity. “It also means that people’s safety was compromised,” he said.
An expert in aviation who didn’t want to be named said the current issue has definitely compromised safety standards. “It looks like a detailed investigation should be done on the issue,” he said.
The managing director of Druk Air, Tandin Jamso, denied that safety issues were compromised. “The aircraft was proven safe by the manufacturer of the aircraft themselves,” he said. “If it was not so, they (DCA) should probably not have given us the clearance.”
“If there was a safety concern, we would not have taken the risk,” he said.
Tandin Jamso said the aircraft’s Performance Engineer and test pilots sat down to design the specific operating procedures and it was signed by the aircraft manufacturer.
Emphasizing on the need to understand the ground reality in Bhutan, the Druk Air Chief said that even the Airbus aircraft (used in international flights) is not designed to use the Paro International Airport but it is done under certain conditions.
“Any aircraft flying into Paro will always have to fly under conditions” said Tandin Jamso.
Justifying Druk Air’s decision to use the ATR, Tandin Jamso said the only other option was to use the Pilatus PC-12 which is a single engine aircraft and can carry only eight passengers. It could have been used to fly only in the domestic sector.
“We had to make a quick decision to stick with a PC-12 and do only domestic sector and not fly to other sectors or look at utilizing the ATR, carry lesser passengers in the domestic route but utilize it in other sectors,” he said.
With the notion of using the ATR to fly even outside the country, “We accepted the load penalty (ceiling to carry only 20 passengers) on the domestic route because it gave us extra flexibility to use the aircraft in other routes,” he said.
He said Druk Air also explored the possibilities of using other aircrafts like the Dornier, PC-12, and the Beechcraft and resolved the ATR was the best option. A study done by an ATR Performance Engineer found that the aircraft could fly if it carried only half the number of its passenger capacity.
DCA officials agree that safety issues were not compromised if the ATR was not carrying more than 20 passengers.
Druk Air maintains that it will resume the flight to Bumthang as soon as the repair works at the runway is completed and says the flights have been stopped only on safety grounds. Tashi Air stopped domestic flights in May this year.
The DCA is still not convinced that Druk Air is stopping flights just because of the problems in the runway. It says if that is the case, how could Druk Air use the runway to test and train new pilots. “On one hand they are saying it is not safe and on the other hand they are using it to train new pilots, which is even more risky,” said Sangay Wangdi. “We don’t know what they are trying to do,” he wondered.