Amid an industry-wide acute crisis of pilots, US-Bangla Airlines has opted for the surest and seemingly easiest path – to produce its own pilots to expand its business amid the globally rising demand for travel.
The largest private airlines in the country recently hired 23 cadet pilots to train them abroad as first officers, for which it will spend $60,000–$70,000 per head. Usually, a pilot bears their training cost to get a flying licence.
The increase in flight frequency after the pandemic created a serious pilot crisis as few flyers were produced in 2020-21. At the same time, current pilots have also complained about being overworked, raising safety concerns, the professional association of pilots said.
Of the three flight schools and clubs for training pilots in the country, two have closed and only one is in operation with the capacity to produce 8-10 pilots annually against the industry demand of 50.
The Bangladesh Flying Academy and Arirang Flying School are not in operation now, while the Galaxy Flying Academy has inadequate operating capacity, according to industry insiders.
Amid this situation, US-Bangla is planning to set up a flight school to generate first officers for domestic flight operations, its CEO Captain Lutfor Rahman said. But it will take time to complete the process with the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB), he added.
He said the big problem was that very few pilots attained licences for commercial flight operations in the last two years as two out of three flight schools had folded.
US-Bangla will need 20 to 30 pilots per year from 2023 to 2026 according to its business expansion plan, Captain Lutfor said. The airline is training cadet pilots to fill that need as it is planning to add more aircraft to its fleet in the near future, he said.
Meanwhile, Galaxy has only three serviceable aircraft and they are trying to add more aircraft as they have 200 students enlisted for training.
The national carrier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, is also finding it difficult to overcome the pilot crisis.
Biman, which has the largest modern fleet, has not been able to use its aircraft at maximum capacity due to the shortage. It needs about 20 more pilots for operating its fleet of Boeing 787.
Meanwhile, raising concerns over the shortage, the Bangladesh Airlines Pilots' Association (BAPA) recently wrote to Biman management, saying excessive work hours had left pilots stressed and, mentally and physically exhausted.
They are even made to operate flights beyond the regulatory threshold. Although working hours may change, each airline agrees to a maximum amount.
Raising safety concerns, the association reported that excess duty prompted everyone to neglect the importance of flight safety in aviation, which may cost the carriers greatly in the future.
In this context, Biman moved to hire foreign pilots at higher cost.
Md Zahid Hossain, managing director of Biman, said it could not use their Boeing 787 aircraft at full capacity due to pilot shortage. A Boeing 787 can be in operation for 14 to 15 hours per day, while Biman has been using it for 11 to 12 hours.
He said existing pilots are under pressure due to an increase in flight frequency, but Biman is not violating any rules in regards to working hours.
"We are the only airline in Bangladesh certified by the International Aviation Safety Assessment [IASA] due to maintaining safety issues," he said.
He, however, said they were trying to recruit new pilots to ease the pressure on the existing crew.
The MD said Biman had sought applications for recruiting 18 pilots for the Boeing 787 aircraft, both locally and internationally.
Biman carried 8 lakh passengers in just three months from July, which was almost four times higher than the same period of the last year, according to the carrier.
How Biman is in acute pilot crisis
Sources said one female crew member became unconscious during a return flight to Dhaka from Cox's Bazar on 20 October. Her condition was reportedly due to excessive work.
On 10 October, the BAPA, expressing the dedication of the pilot community in forgoing leaves, day-offs and personal commitments amid the shortage to ensure smooth Hajj flight operations, said, "Hajj operation is long gone. Unfortunately, still no improvement of flight schedule has been observed. Regular violation of Civil Aviation Directive (CAD) about Flight Time Limitation (FTL), extended duty, no leaves or days-off, most of the cases no monthly roster etc. burning issues are persisting and no apparent initiative is visible to mitigate the issues.
"As a result, the crew are fatigued, stressed and mentally, physically exhausted. Our family and social lives are being immensely compromised. Most importantly everyone is neglecting the importance of Flight Safety in aviation."
The BAPA also said Biman is not holding pilot utilisation committee (PUC) meetings regularly.
As per BAPA, a working agreement PUC meeting shall be held every month, preferably by the second week of each month.
"In the PUC meeting we can figure out proper distribution of flying hours, flying sectors, flight duty, days off, leave, sick leave, etc. There are numerous complaints from our member pilots regarding these issues. If the office could arrange PUC meetings on a regular basis, we could avoid such discrepancies and bring back transparency."
Responding to this issue, Capt Md Siddiqur Rahman, director of flight operations of Biman, told The Business Standard that they could not hold the meeting due to the packed schedule of the pilots. Despite being flight director he is also operating flights due to pilot shortage, he said.
Asked about pilot shortage, Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman, chairman of CAAB, said flight schools and clubs are non-operative, creating a pilot crisis.
He said the Bangladesh Flying Academy was subsidised by the government for pilot training but it is now closed because the subsidy is not available any more.
The CAAB had formed a committee to manage the academy, but it was not efficient. As a result, the subsidy was stopped, he said.
He said pilot training is very expensive and it is not CAAB's duty to produce pilots. CAAB can provide policy support. Private sector flight schools have not developed due to high risk and cost, he added.
However, US-Bangla and Bangladesh Air force are in the process of establishing pilot training schools which can meet the shortage, he said.