Inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week, what is possibly the most beautiful airport in the world has just opened for business.
Located in the north eastern state of Sikkim, the runway seems to be carved out of the side of a stretch of the Himalayas. At around 30km from the state capital of Gangtok and 60km from the Indo-China border, it’s a strategic location and a welcome addition for the Sikkimese people.
It’s the first airport in the state of Sikkim which was, until now, the only state in India without an airport. More than that, it’s the 100th airport to fully open in the nation.
Modi commented that India was committed to expansion of air travel, stating that:
“After Independence the country had only 65 airports till 2014. But in the last four years we have built 35 airports. Earlier the average was one airport every year, now the average is nine airports per year”
He stated that the country is committed to ensure that the north east is a powerhouse of India’s growth. He continues to back investment in air and rail connectivity as well as electricity in even the most remote areas of the state.
An engineering marvel
This Indian Himalayas airport has everything you’d expect from a fully functioning travel hub. There is a 1,700m long runway, plus a 116m long taxi way to accommodate two ATR 72 craft simultaneously.
The terminal building sits on a footprint of around 2,300 square metres and can accommodate 100 passengers comfortably. There is parking for 80 cars, an air traffic control tower cum fire station and the usual amenities inside.
However, it’s not the ‘what’ that makes this airport so special… it’s the ‘where’.
The new Pakyong Airport is home to one of the tallest reinforced embankment walls in the world and has been dubbed an ‘engineering marvel’. Early on in the project, it became apparent that traditional embankments and retaining structures were not going to work here.
Instead, the land for the airport was literally carved out of the hillside, using state of the art cut and fill techniques to stabilise slopes and reinforce the structure. The finished article comes at a cost of over $43m and has been built to withstand even the heaviest monsoon rains, which are common in Sikkim for six months of the year.
Aside of the issue of trying to build an airport on the side of a mountain, engineers were further impeded by the lack of access to the site, having to ferry thousands of tonnes of building materials along farm tracks and mountain roads.
At 4,500 feet above sea level, Pakyong is certainly a lofty facility. However, its altitude puts it only 5th in the list of India’s highest airports and is dwarfed when considered alongside Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport (IXL) at more than 10,000 feet high.
Where can you go from the new Pakyong Airport?
Unfortunately for us, the chances of flying in or out of Pakyong Airport are fairly remote. So far only two airlines have signed up to include this destination on their routes: SpiceJet and Druk Air.
Druk will fly for Paro (PBH) in Bhutan, starting in January 2019. SpiceJet plan two routes; one to Guwahati (GAU) in the north east of India and the other to Kolkata (CCU), both planned to start next month and served with a Bombardier Q400.
However, if you’re in the business of hiking the Himalayas, your journey just got easier. India estimate around 50,000 foreign tourists visited the state of Sikkim last year. At that time, the only way to reach the capital was to fly to Bagdora, West Bengal, and then make the five our road trip from there.
Now tourists both domestic and foreign tourists can arrive in the heart of the scenic surroundings thanks to this scenic Indian Himalayas airport.