Aviation: In its first month of operations, Bhutan’s helicopter flew a total of 22 hours, made five medical airlifts, and even made a profit of Nu 400,000.
Each hour of keeping the helicopter airborne costs the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services Ltd (RBHSL) Nu 165,000 or USD 2,500, which equaled to a total operation cost of Nu 3.6 million (M) or USD 55,000 for the month of November. The total revenue for November was a little over Nu 4M. The operating cost includes overhead like maintenance, salaries, and fixed costs.
To date, the helicopter has flown a total of 48 hours, however, the operating cost of the helicopter for December had not yet been calculated by the company and therefore was not included. The total revenue earned to date is around Nu 6M.
RBHSL CEO, Chhewang Gyeltshen, said that the operating cost of the helicopter in Bhutan is higher than in Nepal because of insurance. Up to 30 percent of the operating cost is for insurance.
He said that if the insurance premium was similar with what is available in Nepal, then the operating cost of the helicopter could be even lower, at around Nu 132,000 or USD 2,000 per hour.
“The biggest challenge is insurance,” he said.
He added that RBHSL pays around Nu 11.5M or USD 175,000 for its one aircraft per year as insurance, which is a third of what the national airline Drukair pays in a year for four aircraft. Both companies are insured with the Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan.
The company’s primary customer has been the government, specifically the health ministry. So far, five medical airlifts have occurred with each flight costing between Nu 250,000 to 300,000.
Additionally, the helicopter has also been used for other official purposes. Chhewang Gyeltshen said that the government is charged for all flights. “No one gets a free ride,” he said.
Of the government’s Nu 600M equity, around Nu 500M was used to purchase the two helicopters and spare parts. The remaining Nu 100 million is being used by RBHSL as working capital.
According to the company, the Nu 100M working capital will last for 22 months or a little less than two years, at a monthly operating cost of Nu 4.5M, which takes into consideration the second helicopter, two expatriate pilots and one expatriate engineer. The calculation assumes zero income and zero depreciation.
A second expatriate pilot joins the company next week, while a third one arrives in May. Chhewang Gyeltshen said that an expatriate pilot with experience flying in mountain terrain has been hired. He said this is being done to further increase safety.
RBHSL has also recruited three Bhutanese to become trainee pilots. The three are fresh graduates with no aviation background. Their training and qualification is expected to take several years.
A Bhutanese engineer has also been recruited and has already completed training for the Airbus H-130 helicopter. He is already working for the company.
On future sustainability of the company, Chhewang Gyeltshen pointed out that the company is not only state owned but its biggest customer is the government as well. Besides a few flights chartered by tourists, all flights were for official purposes, he said adding that looking at the demand in November, there is a good indication that the company can financially sustain.
However, the CEO also said that the primary purpose of RBHSL is to provide emergency services and is not a commercial company. It was also pointed out that the helicopter is on stand by 24 hours, seven days a week to respond to emergencies. Chhewang Gyeltshen said that initially it took the company 1.5 hours to respond to a distress call, which has now been reduced to 30 minutes. He said the target is for the helicopter to be airborne 15 minutes after receiving a distress call.
Another challenge has been no fuel supply in other parts of the country outside Paro airport. The helicopter can carry enough fuel to keep it airborne for a little over three hours. But bad weather can cause diversions and thereby affect the primary operation. As a result, the company is placing 400 litres of fuel in Punakha, Bumthang, and Gelephu each. This measure is expected to minimize any impact of diversions caused by bad weather.
A total of 24 helipads have also been identified, inspected and included in the company’s database. Other potential helipads are being explored. However, there will be times when the helicopter has to use other locations that may not have a helipad. In such cases, information is gathered from people on the site about possible landing locations. Once over the landing site, the pilot then carries out reconnaissance flights to asses risks and if satisfied, proceeds to land the helicopter.
Chhewang Gyeltshen said that another challenge has been the presence of electrical transmission lines and logging cables across the country. However, he said that the latest maps of the transmission lines and logging cables in the country have been acquired and incorporated into the company’s database.
The helicopter is also equipped with a cable cutter system that would protect the occupants of the aircraft in the event a cable is encountered.
The company’s second helicopter is expected early next year.
Gyalsten K Dorji, Paro