Published in News From Bangladesh in September 28, 2008.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines has recently signed a deal with Boeing to purchase 10 brand new aircrafts, four Boeing 777-300s, four Boeing 787-8s and two Boeing 737-800s. There are two important aspects of this. First of all, it is being said that the airline has done this for the first time without interference from the government. If this is true, then that's quite a development. We know very well how our previous governments have directly purchased or leased old aircraft through dodgy tenders that involved kickbacks. The result was that the choice of aircrafts was old (and fuel guzzling), the planes were varied in terms of the manufacturer (leading to high maintenance and other costs), schedules and route planning made no commercial sense other than instilling some vague notion of prestige, and customer service and inflight service remained prehistoric compared to the competition. Thanks to how the governments used the airline as their personal fiefdom, this airline gradually turned into nothing other than a national disgrace.
The second noticeable aspect of this development is the choice of aircraft. The current composition of DC-10s, A-310s and F28s come from 3 different manufacturers (who have stopped manufacturing them long time ago) and have little commonality in them regarding spare parts, pilot flexibility etc. US carriers used to be notorious in this regard (having up to 10 different types of aircraft from various manufacturers in the fleet). Depending on the business of an airline, you need only 3 to 4 type of aircraft and most preferably from the same manufacturer. In this regard, I think the choice of aircrafts during the recent deal with Boeing was excellent. A similar deal with Airbus would have been fine as well but according to reports, the offer from Boeing was financially more beneficial. The 777-300s are wonderful planes that can operate on high density long distance routes. The 787-8s promise to be very economical aircrafts and will be able to operate on medium density long or medium distance routes. The 737-800s are good for short haul routes. Airbus 320 series aircrafts compete with this model from Boeing very well but I am glad that Biman chose to stay with a single manufacturer thus ensuring better discounts.
I hope future route planning will make more sense and be more economical. Passengers like the right balance between varied destinations and point to point connections. This means that passengers from Dhaka need not endure any stoppages in Dubai and Paris along the way to London. Biman should fly to destinations that justify non stop flights with sufficient load. If non-stop flights to Paris from Dhaka make no sense, then Biman ought to simply ignore that destination and find a suitable European partner to connect Paris bound passengers from London or another European city that Biman can commercially fly (non-stop) to (example Rome). Needless to say Biman is currently and must continue to concentrate on the Middle Eastern routes since that is where there is the highest demand for seats and that is where the airline has made money in the past. Reliable, daily non-stop flights to the various cities must be one of the main features of the future schedule.
Opportunities must be explored to connect Sylhet directly with London. Just like the Bangladeshis in the Middle East, the Bangladeshis from Sylhet in the UK have long contributed immensely towards Bangladesh's foreign exchange pot without receiving much in terms of gratitude or respect. Families have long suffered the gruelling experience of Biman through Dhaka that involved missed connections and lost luggage. Biman can re-engage in attempting to establish Dhaka as a mini hub for transfer passengers from the Far East to other parts of South Asia, the entire Middle East and Europe. Non-stop flights to New York from Dhaka ought to excite the huge Bangladeshi population in the US East Coast as well.But the success of all of this is contingent on the level of service provided on the ground and inflight. I hope proper consultants will be appointed to train staff at all levels to ensure service that combines the warmth of Bengali hospitality with sophistication and style that international travellers have come to expect. Ease of ticketing (online and offline) is as important as the communication skills of flight attendants (in both Bangla and English) as is inflight entertainment and catering. Fortunately there are competitors that Biman can emulate. With IFE (inflight entertainment) from Emirates, the warmth of cabin crew from Malaysian Airlines, the cabin interiors of Singapore Airlines, the professionalism of flight attendants from British Airways, and the right combination of Bengali and international catering, Biman can hope to compete in its own niche market.
But most importantly, we need to learn one of the most important lessons from successful economies. Governments should not be in the business of running businesses. The present caretaker government should complete the job of completely privatising this airline. I am very doubtful of whether the next elected government will continue the process or not.