Biman Bangladesh Airlines has built a bad reputation through flight delays. But on-time flight performance of the national carrier is now, surprisingly, well above the global standard.
Since September, Biman's on-time performance improvement has crossed 90 percent from the previous 50 percent, where the international average is 80 percent.
Among the Asia Pacific airlines, Hong Kong Airlines was ranked top with 88.11 percent on-time performance whereas IndiGo Airlines was 10th at 81.70 percent last year, according to the global report "The Punctuality League-2019".
On-time performance is measured by looking at flights that arrive or depart within 15 minutes of their schedule.
"There have been no flight delays except in the case of technical glitches, unfavourable weather or slot adjustment, since September," said Md Mokabbir Hossain, managing director of Biman, in an interview with The Business Standard.
Mokabbir was appointed to Biman on September 15 this year. Before that he used to serve the Civil Aviation and Tourism Ministry as an additional secretary.
Biman's fleet has increased manyfold over the years, and the national flag carrier's current fleet size is the largest in its history. It has 16 aircraft now – 10 of which are its own and the rest are on lease.
All the 10 modern airships were added to Biman's fleet between 2011 to September this year.
Two more 787-9 aircraft will be added to Biman's fleet this month, and another two Dash-8 will arrive by June next year, taking the total fleet size to 20.
An improved organisational system has enhanced Biman's on-time performance.
"If we can bring the system to the right track, it will work properly. I want to develop an international-standard operational system. It should not be a one-man show. Deviation in the organisational system is holding Biman back," Mokabbir explained.
With the largest fleet in its history, Biman is exploring new routes to increase its destinations and flight frequency, he said.
Though fleet planning was undertaken in 2010, route expansion and the workforce were not adjusted in line with the fleet size, he mentioned.
It is difficult to do route planning in advance because a route which is commercially viable today may not be so two years later, explained Mokabbir, adding that route planning has to be revised from time to time.
Route planning is usually done when all equipment and manpower is available.
Biman is now examining the commercial viability of new destinations. It started flights to Delhi and to Medina this year.
From January 5 it will start a flight to Manchester in England. Starting flights to two new destinations, Chennai and Guangzhou, is in the pipeline.
"We are examining the commercial viability of some new routes such as Dhaka-Manchester-Toronto, Dhaka-Manchester-New York, and Dhaka-Bangkok-Tokyo," said Mokabbir.
Under its current air service agreement with Japan, Biman can use 35 percent of its passenger-carrying capacity from Bangkok to Japan, which is not commercially viable.
The Biman chief said that a meeting will be held between the two governments under an air service agreement to solve the issue.
From the beginning of next year, Biman will increase its flight frequency on existing routes to Middle Eastern countries.
"We have targeted the Middle East as many Bangladeshis live there," said Mokabbir.
"Bangladeshis living in the Middle East feel comfortable travelling on Biman because of food habit, culture, and so on. But we could not use this business opportunity. For instance, we are operating seven flights from Riyadh when Saudi Arabian Airlines is operating 14, reflecting a business potential."
"We have started four weekly flights to Madina, but there is a demand for expanding it to seven."
Though Biman has gone for large-scale business expansion, it has no plan to reduce ticket price in the future, he said. He added that Biman's ticket price is already comparatively lower than that of other airlines.
Biman bought all the 10 new aircraft on loan, and the purchase of four more is in the pipeline. Biman is regularly making payment to the respective banks, Mokabbir said.
The performance of the 737 is going down because four large capacity aircraft are being used on domestic routes due to the shortage of Dash-8 aircraft, which are used for short-haul flights.
"The flying capacity of the 737 is a minimum of 10 hours per day, but we could not use that capacity because we are using the aircraft for short-haul flights," Mokabbir explained.
"We will have to operate the large capacity aircraft at a loss until two more Dash-8 aircraft arrive by June this year."
Biman currently has two leased Dash-8 aircraft with around 74 seat capacity.
"We are operating the 777 aircraft 13 to 14 hours on average per day against the international standard of 13-16 hours. The international range of flying the Dreamliner is 13 to 14 hours, but we are using it for 15 to 16 hours on average," said Mokabbir.
"The standard flying hours of the 737 is at least 8 hours per day, but we use it for 7 hours."
Emphasis on safety issues
"We are not compromising on safety. Recently an aircraft carrying the national cricket team landed just an hour after taking off because of a technical glitch."
"It was not a major technical glitch," the Biman boss said, "But we brought the flight back and sent it for examination and found a malfunctioning electric connection."
On November 3, a flight carrying the national cricket team flew to Oman. But shortly after take-off, an electric malfunction occurred and the aircraft came back for an emergency landing.
Mokabbir said when a flight is delayed over a technical glitch, the passengers are not informed in order to avoid unnecessary panic and discomfort.
However, Biman has recently decided to tell passengers the reason for flight delays to debunk the myth of delaying flights, he elaborated.
Improving service quality:
Biman is also focusing on improving inflight service quality to make passengers feel more comfortable.
"We are trying to improve the institutional system to curb corruption. For instance, the ticket system has been fully automated, mobile apps have been introduced to stop manual interference and to build systemic transparency," said the Biman chief.
Earlier, passengers would complain that they are not getting tickets, but now there is no scope for such a claim because of automation, he pointed out.
"The absence of an efficient workforce is the main challenge for Biman right now. We planned fleet expansion in 2008 but did not recruit staff in line with it," Mokabbir maintained.
"We could not develop the workforce, given the issue of retirement. But we have already recruited some more cabin crew who are being trained now. And we will recruit around 200 people in a different category. Biman has 3,000 staff now."
"We are going for large-scale recruitment to operate the new aircraft. Every aircraft needs 6 sets of crew. But we have a shortage of pilots and cabin crews," said the Biman boss.