A few months ago, someone emailed me wondering if we had felt like flying into Bhutan was safe. Then, at Thanksgiving, a family friend of the in-laws asked the same question: is it really safe to fly into Paro, Bhutan? Doesn’t help when the Paro runway shows up on the World’s Scariest Runways list. For what it’s worth, I’ve had way, way scarier landings (including an aborted landing) at Washington National, which also makes the list!
Without hesitation, I would say we felt safe flying into Bhutan, particularly (and all I’m discussing) when using the national flag carrier Druk Air. We were more in awe of the scenery than worrying about how close we were to the sides of the mountain. Now, neither DH or I are fearful fliers. In fact, both of us have zero fear of flying (though DH has some serious anxiety about getting onto the plane and storing his luggage…but the actual flying? Nope, all good).
I think these questions amplified when the airline was ranked poorly in early 2016 by Airline Ratings (you can read about that here). But when you read about why, you may get a different opinion of not only the ranking, but the rating system in general. I realize that rating systems all have their flaws and benefits, but when Druk Air ranks behind a U.S. airline with 5 emergency landings in a month, well, that makes you wonder. The linked article offers the 2 reasons why it lost so many points: the first is because it does not have International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit certification. While an international standard, the cost of certification is really significant, particularly for a fleet/company as small as Druk Air.
The second is because the country’s regulator was not deemed to having met International Civil Aviation Organization standards/safety parameters based on a 2006 audit. The director of Bhutan’s Civil Aviation authority points out that Druk Air follow similar, internal safety audit procedures and that significant steps have been made since 2006.
Certainly, there may be some reason for concern. I don’t want to diminish the fact that perhaps the airline is under-regulated or that Bhutan’s regulatory authorities may provide insufficient oversight. But to rank the national airline so lowly primarily due to administrative oversight seems a bit harsh.
If nothing else, I’d argue this: statistically, Druk Air’s safety record speaks for itself. It has not had any major issue in 27-years of operation. I hate to cite Wikipedia (the girls at work would kill me) but I’m going to do it anyway…it seems there has only been one incident, and that was on approach to India when they hit a hail storm. A safe landing was made. And I’d also point out that Druk Air, flying into and out of Paro airport, is significantly more difficult and dangerous than landing in, say, Denver or Geneva.
Druk Air’s pilots are highly qualified and fly on visual flight rules only; even other aviators acknowledge that there is little margin for error in the narrow valley at nearly 7500 feet (read here). Not many pilots land on a routine basis using only visual flight rules in large aircraft. Back in 2014, there were only reported to be 8 pilots that were qualified to land. Only captains are allowed to fly in and out. On our flight in, there were at least 3 and possibly 4 licensed pilots in the cockpit–including one that went in just for the landing. Druk Air also observes weather, not timetables. Our flight left nearly 45 minutes early because weather was moving in. Yep, it makes it harder to plan, but as the old adage goes, “better safe than sorry”.
Flying into a narrow valley among 16,000 foot peaks, and getting to see the tippy top of Everest is a flight I will never forget. But not because I was clinging on to the edge of my seat.