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The Royal Bhutan Airlines operating in south Asia.

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      26.11.2008 15:13
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      Druk makes your flight into a highlight of your holiday

      Much to my shame and the despair of environmentalists, I have to admit that I fly a lot and so I've used a very large number of different airlines and generated a massive elephantine carbon footprint in the process. However, I've only ever reviewed a tiny number of these airlines because I think it's risky to base an opinion on very limited experience. I know for example that even a good airline can have a bad day and even a lousy one can get lucky once in a while and pull off great service. For that reason I would not NORMALLY review an airline I've only used once - but this is not a normal airline. Most people who use Druk Air will only ever use it once or twice - not because it's a dreadful airline that crashes and kills all its passengers but because it only goes to one place and that's one of the most expensive countries on the face of the planet. Druk Air is the national carrier of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Druk - in case you were wondering - is the local word for Dragon.

      Unless you are a resident of a neighbouring country such as India, if you visit Bhutan as a tourist you will have to either fly in or fly out or both. If you hate flying, don't pick Bhutan because you can't even get a visa without agreeing to book a flight. There is just one border crossing and that's a hellish journey and even if you loved bouncing around on crappy roads, you'd still need to book a flight at least one way.

      **Where do Druk Fly to?**

      They serve seven airports, flying from Paro in Bhutan to Delhi, Calcutta and Bodhgaya in India, Bangkok in Thailand, Kathmandu in Nepal and Dhaka in Bangladesh. It's possible that you could fly Druk without going to Paro by flying between two cities where one is the stop-off point on the way to Paro. For example, I know someone who has flown Delhi to Kathmandu with Druk but I can't imagine why anyone would choose to do that.

      The important thing to note is that they only serve one Bhutanese airport and there's a simple reason for that; there only IS one Bhutanese airport.

      **Getting Tickets**

      At popular times of year, Druk's flights are fully booked months beforehand. You could have a confirmed flight and still get bumped off if a government minister or member of the royal family needed your seat. Or you could find out that they just change the flight departure time and forget to tell you so you miss it. Sometimes they put on extra flights which are often announced only a few days before they are due to go but there's no easy way to predict if that will happen. This is not an airline or a country that encourages spontaneous unplanned travel.

      We booked our holiday about 6-8 weeks before we travelled and were only able to get a flight into the country because all the flights out again were already full. Booking the flight isn't easy because you can't actually do it yourself. They have a website - one of the worst I've seen for any airline - but you can't book online. In fact you can't get reliable info on flight schedules or prices or flight availability either. I'm not quite sure what purpose their website is supposed to serve. The only way to get flights is through your tour operator or one of Druk's offices or agents in Asia.

      **Paying for your tickets**

      You'll have to arrange a tour before you can get your visa and so the standard way to pay for your flights is through your tour company. This can take some of the sting out of discovering that your one way flight is going to set you back nearly $400 per person because the price will get swallowed up into the even bigger and much scarier bill for your tour. Payment is also tricky since it has to be made by complicated bank transfers via an intermediary bank - you'll wonder if it's all a big scam and a Nigerian princess is attempting to clear funds through your account. Once you've paid, you should receive an e-ticket for your flight and probably a few strange mails in successive weeks moving your departure time around in a confusing way.

      **OK, you've survived booking, how was the service on the ground?**

      We had seats on the lunch time departure from Delhi's international airport which was originally scheduled to leave at 12.50 but later moved to 13.20. When we got to the airport - really early - the flight was listed for 13.50 and was due to stop in Kathmandu on the way and land in Paro just before 17.00.

      Check in was easy - but then we were ridiculously early - but we were disappointed to hear that despite being only the 4th passengers to check in, all the seats on the left hand side of the plane (the mountain view side) had already gone. We asked if there was any chance this could be changed and were told, somewhat cryptically, not to worry because they were planning to cancel a big group who hadn't checked in yet. After clearing immigration and security we waited patiently for the flight and watched the monitors moving the departure time around. I forget when we actually left but it was neither the original nor the amended time.

      Whilst we were waiting in the departures area, a lady from the check in came into the departures area, tracked us down and told us she'd changed our seats. I was surprised that she remembered us, even more that she'd found us (it's not a big airport but it's pretty busy) and also that we didn't get new boarding cards, just an instruction that we could take 15A and 15B because the flight wasn't full.

      **On Board Experience**

      The plane was an Airbus A319, one of two that Druk owns. I've read conflicting reports about whether they have a total of two or four planes but I suspect it's just the two. So if you think we don't have enough experience of the airline, I can say that I've flown on half the planes in the Druk fleet and between 2/7ths of the airports they use.

      Boarding was easy and quick and we took our seats on the left side of the plane, just behind the wing. The flight was about 60% full. The seats had plenty of leg-room and were considerably bigger and more comfortable than the awful flight we'd had from Heathrow to Delhi with Virgin the day before. The stewardesses were all beautifully dressed in the local Bhutanese outfit of a long dress called a kira, with a short silk jacket over and were all very pretty.

      Food was served shortly after take off and my vegetarian meal included a hot dish of paneer and black bean curries and saffron rice accompanied with a small salad, water and a very nice, ultra-sweet cardamom flavoured pudding. Wine and beer were served with the meal.

      About 40 minutes after take off we caught first sight of the mountains and shortly after the trays were cleared we hit the highlight of the flight as the plane turned slightly to fly parallel to the ridge of the highest parts of the Himalaya range. As we flew along the pilot and first officer took great pains to point out which of the mountains we were passing - starting with Everest, Lhotse and Makalu and ending later with Kanchenjunga. By this point we'd seen 4 of the worlds 5 highest mountains. I'm sure the plane must have been leaning to one side as all the passengers moved over for a better look. This flight is truly an attraction in its own right.

      We were still expecting to land in Kathmandu so it was a real surprise when we realized that the Kathmandu touch down had been cancelled and we were going straight into Paro. This solved the mystery of the missing passengers; Druk had bounced them off the flight so they could go straight to Paro without stopping. As a result we were set to land after just two hours in the air.

      **Landing at Paro**

      Paro Airport is renowned as one of the world's most scary airports for landing and the internet is scattered with videos of hairy landings. Only eight pilots worldwide are qualified to land at Paro but I'm really pleased that I didn't know that before I went there. Our flight was on a clear, warm, sunny day so our experience really wasn't worrying at all. However, the airport uses a system known as Visible Sight Rules which means that no plane can be permitted to land if the pilot can't see the runway - or take off if the pilot can't see the mountains. It seems obvious but many airports happily let pilots land in heavy fog or storms using automatic pilot settings but that's not allowed in Paro.

      Approaching Paro, the plane made several steep 'banking' moves to shuffle through the mountain peaks. The approach to the runway follows a river and squeezes between high mountains covered in green trees with a few scattered houses. Our landing was smooth and uneventful and as we taxied along the runway we started to notice the airport buildings were far from normal. Not only is the airport tiny, but every building - with the exception of the aircraft hangar - is built in traditional Bhutanese style with lots of carved and painted woodwork. Even the air-traffic control tower looks like it was built by Disney.

      **On the Ground**

      The plane came to a halt close to the arrivals hall and we left by steps at the front and rear of the plane. The plane stood photogenic against a background of green mountains with its bold Bhutanese flag on the tail fin. Only one airline - the national carrier, Druk Air - uses the airport and only a tiny number of flights come in each day so there's no need to worry about not getting a good place for the plane to park or having to wait a long time.

      **Arrival Procedures**

      We walked to the arrivals hall, trying not to giggle at the local men in their traditional dress of the Gho - a knee length coat with more than a passing resemblance to a tightly belted dressing gown. These are worn with knee-high socks and well polished shoes. Entering the arrivals, we popped to the toilets and were impressed at their cleanliness, then joined the queue for immigration. An official asked if we were tourists (pretty obviously I'm sure) and then sent us a desk marked for aircrew - they had all already passed through the hall. Whilst we waited in line, a lady took the copies of our visa confirmations which our tour organisers had emailed beforehand, and she disappeared off to find the visas. In just a few minutes, they immigration official had found our visas, stamped our landing cards and waved us through to baggage reclaim.

      Paro has just the one luggage belt and needs no more because it has so few flights. With the plane standing so near, our bags were already on the belt before we got there and we were soon out the door to receive a traditional welcome of a white silk scarf and then whisked away by our guide and driver.

      The airport is only a few minutes drive from the town of Paro and can be seen from most high points in the town. If you are leaving from Paro rather than arriving there, don't go to the airport too early - there's very little to do and you could probably stay in the town and wait until you see your plane land before you set off. Also be sure to check your flight departure times - Druk appear to fly when they feel like it and frequently change flight times without warning.

      **Summary**

      The service on board was great, the views were spectacular and the flight was entirely satisfactory. The other annoying aspects - changing times, cancelling legs, flight availability and so on - are just part of the Bhutanese experience. At the end of the day you have no option about using them, no competitors if you don't want to, and no cheaper alternatives. So just sit back, belt up and enjoy one of the best views in the world.

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