Biman demonstrates utter inefficiency, makes foolish move to abandon regular services for Hajj operations
_By Raquib Siddiqi
Dhaka : Is Biman Bangla-desh Airlines, the so- called national flag carrier, a schedule airline? Officially and technically, the answer is yes. Yet, it is strange to see the management deciding in favour of temporary Hajj operations by abandoning a number of schedule services.
Contrary to the policy of schedule airlines all over the world, the Board of Directors of Biman has decided to suspend flight operations on three international routes_ Dhaka-Delhi, Dhaka-Hong Kong and Dhaka-Karachi as well as decided to reduce the number of flights on five international routes, including Dhaka-Manchester-London, Dhaka-Milan, Dhaka-Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka-Singapore and Dhaka-Bangkok to ferry Hajj pilgrims.
It is certainly a terrible and unfortunate decision which is bound to result in lasting harm to Biman. Why this has happened? The reason is not far to seek. It is the failure of the management to hire required aircraft to ferry Hajj pilgrims. Biman planned to take lease of three aircraft to operate Hajj services this year, but could lease only one.
Hajj operation is an annual event and Biman management if fully aware that they are to hire aircraft from outside to operate Hajj service. There was no dearth of time to do the job, but it is only the management that can explain this unusual failure.
Failing to lease aircraft, the management of Biman_ dominated by non-professionals_ decided to withdraw two Boeing B777-300ERs from regular flight schedule and use the two aircraft for Hajj operations.
It may be mentioned that the operation of 40-year old Biman is now in disarray. Due to shortage of funds, shortage of aircraft as well as unreliable fleet, the national flag carrier is running on day to day basis and finding hard to keep its nose up.
Mismanagement by non-professionals and unreliable fleet are troubling since its birth. Due to lack of efforts in desired direction_ the national flag carrier is still stuck in quagmire of serious basic problems_ poor management, unreliable fleet and poor manpower being the three most important.
The present situation is very much depressing in all aspects_ both financial and operational. In its struggling history, perhaps the current situation can be termed as most critical. The latest decision by the management is likely to aggravate the situation further.
The airline is not in a position to take delivery of aircraft under repair and replace engine, due to extreme shortage of funds. This situation is resulting in shortage of aircraft and consequent disruption of flights. Owning a fleet which is dominated by old aircraft prone to frequent technical problems, the operation of Biman has become very much vulnerable.
Now, the two new B777-300ERs have become mainstay of Biman fleet. Technical problems of DC-10-30 and A310 aircraft have become regular and frequent. To ferry stranded passengers of around 200, Biman has no option but to use 419 capacity B777-300ER aircraft.
For quite some times, the schedule regularity of Biman has become very poor. According to a senior executive, it is hovering around only about 20 per cent. A pathetic situation indeed.
The flight disruption has become so frequent that reliability of Biman has gone down to almost zero. Its existing bad image has taken further hit.
Except in two B777-300ERs Biman cannot offer reliable as well as quality services. The airline is also not in a position to offer more frequency.
So, it is very difficult to understand the decision to withdraw the two dependable aircraft from the schedule service, suspension and reduction of schedule service on various routes, the image and standing of Biman is going to suffer more.
It is really impossible to understand why Hajj operation became more important than its schedule operation to the current Biman management. Could not they realise that their decision to suspend and reduce schedule services is going to harm the airline more than the possible financial gain for Hajj operations?
Not wise decision
The decision to limit the Hajj operation to only three airlines_ one from Bangladesh and two from Saudi Arabia_ do not appear to be wise decision under the existing situation in Biman. Why other airlines operating to Bangladesh were not allowed to transport Hajj pilgrims is not known.
Had these airlines were allowed to transport Hajj pilgrims, not only Biman could avoid present situation, but also the pilgrims could get more options as well as reduced fare.
It may be mentioned that Qatar Airways, which operates four flights from Kathmandu to Doha, and two flights a day from Doha to Jeddah is offering a special fare for the Nepali pilgrims.
On the other hand Air Arabia has been made official carrier for Hajj pilgrims by the government of Nepal. Air Arabia had proposed a fare of US$870 for round trip. The flight on the Kathmandu-Sharjah-Jeddah route will have a transit of three to four hours in Sharjah and Air Arabia will provide food and lodging facilities to pilgrims.
Similarly, Qatar Airways is offering a special fare of Rs 82,000, including all the taxes and surcharges to perform Hajj pilgrimage - and back.
Nearly 1,000 Nepali Muslims perform the pilgrimage every year, and Qatar Airways carried 858 pilgrims last year providing excellent service including extra baggage allowance to carry food and Zam Zam water.
Unfortunately, due to government decision, the Hajj pilgrims from Bangladesh are not in a position to draw benefits from competition of different airlines. They are being made to pay much higher fare with very limited options.
Victim of exploitation
Bangladesh has so far failed to evolve a smooth and efficient functioning of Annual Hajj Operation. And this failure is resulting in regular sufferings of large number of pilgrims_ both mental due to associated uncertainty and financial due to greed of some people. Most pilgrims from Bangladesh became victims of exploitation every year as government this far failed to evolve efficient operation of Haj pilgrims.
This year, Hajj Agencies' Association of Bangladesh (HAAB) fears that about 20,000 pilgrims may not be able to perform Hajj due to shortage of airline seats.
For only few
Though Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) and Bangladesh Hajj Office in Saudi Arabia should be responsibly for operation of Hajj of entire Bangladesh pilgrims, it seems that entire government efforts are directed to organise pilgrims for only ballottees_ a very small number of the total.
Presently all pilgrims are organised in two categories-Ballottee and Non-Ballottee. The government makes all arrangements for ballottee pilgrims and approved private Hajj agencies organise pilgrims of all non-ballottee. It is difficult to understand why there should two categories.
MORA admits that now the pilgrims are interested to perform Hajj under privately managed Hajj agencies. This would be evident from the statistics.
For centuries, Makkah has been the mandatory pilgrimage destination for Muslims from all over the world. Bangladesh is the third largest Muslim country of the world. Hajj has been an important duty in the life calendar of every capable Muslim. In the earlier days pilgrims from Bangladesh travelled on foot, by boat, steamship to reach the holy land of Makkah to perform Holy Hajj. The advent of air travel has made the journey quick and easy.
The Annual Hajj Policy covers plans, cost, and procedures for performance of Hajj by Bangladeshi pilgrims. The policy is operationalised after approval in the cabinet. Following approval of the Hajj Policy, bilateral agreement between Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh is annually signed. A comprehensive review takes place at the end of each Hajj by the both governments. The recommendations of the review help to frame Hajj policy and bilateral agreement for the next season.
Lapse of MORA
There is hardly any doubt that the MORA has totally failed to monitor the activities of the private Hajj agency, responsible for arranging Hajj pilgrims for most of the people.
A large number of simple people of Bangladesh aspires to perform Hajj, a journey of their life time. Hajj is not mandatory on many of them as they are neither financially well off and physically sound to withstand the rigor of Hajj rituals.
In fulfilling their life-long ambition, these simple people are being subjected to exploitation. In recent years_ coincided with introduction of package system_ a new breed of middlemen in are exploiting innocent pilgrims.
In the annual Hajj operation scene 'Kafelas' and 'Imams' have become a strong go between the pilgrims and private Hajj agencies. In fact, Hajj agencies have become fully dependent on the so-called Kafela leaders and Imams of various local mosques of the country for business, the pilgrim traffic.
These middlemen have become so dominant that they dictate price of the Hajj package and secure additional benefits for themselves. Presence of unusually large number of private Hajj agencies in the market, make the job of bargaining by Kafela leaders and Imams easy.
Unlike MORA, these private Hajj agencies are not doing the job as public service. It is a business and they are in the market to earn profit. Now, how are they going to make money after selling the package at a price much lower than the cost?
Exploitation of the pilgrims is the answer. A large number of non-ballottee pilgrims are not getting what they are paying for. Inspired by Kafela leaders and Imams, private Hajj agencies are providing inferior accommodation and other facilities including food. The accommodation units are also located far from two holy mosques as these are cheaper. Pilgrims are also packed in a room more than the permissible capacity.
It is really sad to know, so-called Kafela leaders and Imams, brainwashes the simple pilgrims in such a way that they make no complaint and accept the sufferings quietly.
They are told that during Hajj if they show any nature of dissatisfaction about food, accommodation and other kind of creature comfort, their Hajj will be invalid.
A time has come to end this exploitation and MORA can do it by implementing the Hajj policy for the benefit of all the pilgrims, not just small portion of ballottee pilgrims. MORA is well equipped both facility and manpower wise to handle the entire pilgrims and as such must actively over see entire Hajj operation and save the pilgrims from unnecessary tension and exploitation.