Biman’s never-ending turbulence
Like anyone else, I get quite nervous when a plane starts shaking mid-air. It's only when the calm voice of the captain or the cabin crew says, "We are encountering some minor turbulence, it will be over soon," that I relax. But if I were to get on a Biman Bangladesh Airlines flight, I would be nervous from the get-go.
And why would I not? It seems as though the management is failing – or simply does not care enough – to live up to our expectations that our national flag carrier would provide an affordable and quality service. Taxpayers' money is spent to maintain an airline instead of leaving air travel solely in the hands of the private sector, because we view air travel as an essential service that the government must provide as a public good. However, Biman's performance can hardly be termed as a source of satisfaction, let alone pride.
There are, sadly, a plethora of complaints against Biman that have come to light. Let's start with the issue of recruitment. In October, examination papers for a recruitment test for various positions in the airline were leaked and, reportedly, high officials of the air carrier were involved in it. Because of the leak, the recruitment process had to be suspended.
The pilot recruitment process has also been corrupted. In February last year, 14 pilots were appointed to Biman, all of whom became the subject of an investigation after the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) sent a letter to the civil aviation ministry. According to reports by investigative agencies, these pilots were hired instead of giving at least 30 existing Biman pilots their due promotions. Even worse, in many cases, they were hired from other airlines from which they had either been sacked or denied promotion.
The most flagrant was the case of Sadia Ahmed, whose husband was on the recruitment committee and allegedly bent the rules in her favour. Ahmed reportedly did not have the required 300 flying hours needed to qualify for operating a Boeing 777 aircraft. Also, she had been sacked before by Regent Airways and US-Bangla Airlines. Why, then, was she appointed to operate our national flag carrier?
Since the controversy became publicly known through the media, the appointment of nine pilots was cancelled. But, it's not only the new pilots who are questionable. According to a report published in this newspaper, two Biman pilots wilfully jeopardised the lives of their passengers and about 500 others by concealing the fact that the engines of the plane they were flying had been damaged due to the captain's inappropriate mid-flight procedures. According to the law, the penalty for such a crime is life imprisonment. But instead of penalising them, the Biman authorities promoted one of those pilots to fly long-distance flights. Fortunately, the promotion was revoked a day after this newspaper contacted the carrier to inquire about the investigations into the event and the pilots involved.
There are numerous other incidents involving Biman's inefficiency and mismanagement, ranging from making losses year after year, owing money to various organisations, and keeping new aircraft underutilised, to cancelling flights to several destinations, providing subpar customer service, and causing callous accidents on the grounds of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (HSIA). All of this happened in just one year (2022), which also happened to be its 50th year of service.
For example, on November 17, at the HSIA, a Biman ground handling equipment collided with a Gulf Air Boeing 787, damaging the main body of the aircraft and taking it out of operation. Previously, on April 10, a Biman Boeing 777-300ER collided with a carrier Boeing 737-800 while it was being brought into the hangar. Not only were Biman's planes damaged in such incidents; other foreign carriers' aircraft have also been damaged in recent years as a result of the Biman personnel's incompetence. Reportedly, two Turkish Airlines jets were damaged in a similar manner not long ago.
The inefficiency and incompetence of the Biman staff is no secret anymore. The government has noted it to such a level that the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) has decided to appoint an international firm at the new third terminal of the airport for the job.
This is utterly irresponsible and unacceptable. Biman is a public asset and therefore is duty-bound to provide good service. With such poor conditions of pilots and staff, Biman will not be able to compete with other airlines and will continue to endanger its passengers and the prestige of the country. It is high time Biman was overhauled to make it efficient. Corruption and nepotism must be rooted out of the organisation. The entire system needs to be accountable and the responsible parties for the misdeeds listed above must be brought to book.
Biman has a long way to go to meet modern aviation standards. The airline must address its poor on-time performance, inadequate in-flight services and amenities, and ineffective management if it is to regain the trust and loyalty of its customers. Only then can it hope to compete with other international carriers and establish itself as a world-class airline. Otherwise, we will never be able to get a "Smart Airline" for a "Smart Bangladesh."
Anupam Debashis Roy is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.