English | Dzongkha Sunday, April 11, 2021

One year into the pandemic: major turbulence in the aviation sector

Mar 5, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked major turbulence in the aviation sector. It has brought one of the growing industries reeling to the ground, as losses translate to millions of ngultrum. And in a desperate time, the two airline companies in the country have called for desperate measures.

After flying Drukair for almost a decade, Pentalis Kouflis will soon leave for his home in Greece. His employer decided to relieve him along with seven other expat pilots before time.

“And the pandemic came out of the blue as you know not only for Bhutan but for all over the world. It changed the situation dramatically. To find a job this time is generally difficult. Many of the pilots are jobless and it’s difficult but you never know,” he said.

Drukair is also encouraging its employees to go on leave without pay or Extra Ordinary Leave. Last year, the company kept all of them on the payroll taking a loan of Nu 1.5bn.

“Initially we have projected a profit of around Nu 300 M, however by the end of the year we are in a deficit of Nu 1bn. It was a very difficult year. We have lost operationally, we have lost in terms of revenue and we have lost in terms of profitability,” said Tandi Wangchuk, the CEO of Drukair.

But amid the difficult times, the company has seen assuring acts as well.

“They appreciated that when the times were good, they were paid well and during the crisis they thought that they should take the biggest pay cut. They have volunteered to have a pay cut of 25% from their gross pay which is quite substantial. At the same time the senior management employees volunteered for a 15% pay cut,” he added.

For Bhutan Airlines, more than half of its employees have already taken unpaid leave or left the company for good. Others saw a pay cut since September, last year.

“So whatever revenue we generate from the cargo flights that we do, those are little revenue on which we are trying to sustain,” said Phala Dorji, the CEO of Bhutan Airlines.

But the company is still in touch with the employees who resigned and those on temporary layoff. Eventually, when the situation improves, it hopes to take them back on board.

Meanwhile, like any other essential worker, the airline employees continue to risk their health to keep the air transport alive during the pandemic. They have been ferrying people and essential goods including medical supplies.

“Though it had been a challenge, we were still able to bring the required PPE, medical equipment and medicine to the country. From the 94 flights we had till date, we have managed to bring in 410 tonnes of cargo out of which 60 tonnes are specifically for medical equipment,” Drukair’s CEO said.

“We are always available. As and when the government instruct us, we are ready to operate. We make our flights available for transporting of medical kits and relief flights,” added Bhutan Airlines’ CEO.

For now, clearer skies seem far from sight for the country’s aviation sector. Nevertheless, with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, it is hoped that it won’t be long before the business takes off, once again.

Sangay Chezom/Namgay Wangchuk

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