Biman Bangladesh board thinks its pilots are among the top salaried aviators in the world although the airline does not rank even among the top 100 airlines.
A salary comparison of Biman with another flag carrier, Air India of the neighbouring country shows that Biman's pilots enjoy far higher compensation than Indian pilots.
The monthly salary of an entry level pilot of Biman is Tk2.32 lakh and it goes up to Tk16 lakh, including all allowances, for experienced pilots, while the salaries of Air India pilots range between Tk3.40 lakh and Tk10.20 lakh.
Amid the pandemic when the number of flights were cut for flight restrictions across the country, pilots of Air India took a pay cut and currently the lowest salary is fixed at Tk59,500 and the highest at Tk1.27 lakh. In addition, pilots are given Tk2,550 to Tk7,650 per flying hour.
Biman's pilots get a minimum of Tk1.53 lakh and a maximum of Tk5 lakh after a salary reduction implemented to tide over the economic shock of Covid-19.
Apart from higher pay, Biman's pilots have less flying duty compared to international standards causing more economic burden for the company.
According to the Air Navigation Order, in a month, pilots can fly 120 hours which can be extended by 10% to 20% with permission from the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh. Biman's pilots fly 75 hours when international pilots fly 85 hours, according to Biman.
Biman captains earn Tk 4,900 per hour and first officers Tk4,200 for additional flying hours because of the duty hour benefit.
The unusually high salaries of pilots, considering the company's precarious financial state amid the pandemic, compelled Biman's board to consider reviewing the pay structure.
A report on salary comparison was presented at a recent board meeting.
In March, Biman slashed salaries of its staff by 10% to 60% trying to stay afloat.
The carrier is still suffering from massive operational loss because of fewer flyers and flights.
However, Bangladesh Airline Pilots' Association has been urging the management to restore their salaries to the previous state. It recently sent a letter to Biman's management citing the demand.
In consequence, the inflated pay structure in effect since 2008 came to the attention of Biman's board.
In the board meeting, Biman's management gave a presentation on how a salary agreement between the Pilots' Association and Biman had led to pilots getting high pay with fewer duty hours, thus forcing loss to the company.
Biman spends 38% of its total salary expenditures on 139 pilots while the rest of the 5,000 employees get 62% of the salary pie, according to the carrier.
Md Mohibul Haque, senior secretary of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism, told The Business Standard that Biman pilots are getting unusually high salaries in comparison with remunerations paid by other national carriers.
The pay structure should be reviewed to make it bearable according to the company's capacity, said Mohibul who is also a member of the Biman's board.
"The board is thinking of reviewing the pay structure," he added.
Captain Mahbubur Rahman, president of the Pilots' Association, who had a vital role in preparing the pay structure, refused to make any comment on the board's observation.
Leaders of the Pilots' Association speaking with TBS unofficially defended their high pay packages, saying that pilots are considered a special group in Biman.
They could not provide any logical ground for the pay gap between pilots of Biman and other nations, including India, despite its poor performance.
At an unofficial meeting with TBS on 29 December, the association leaders claimed that pilots' salaries are not linked to Biman's business, as it is a state-owned company and loss making for such a company is usual.
The Business Standard compared data from various sources like ZipRecruiter, Quora, and ATP flight school and found that Biman's pilots enjoy nearly double the benefits Indian pilots get and their benefits are even higher than top earners in the United States.
For example, mid-career pilots of Biman having 5 to 10 years of experience enjoy a monthly salary of Tk6 to 8 lakh when Indian pilots with similar experience get an average of Tk4.5 lakh.
The average salary of an international pilot in the United States is Tk5 lakh a month. It is Tk 9 lakh for a top earner.
Biman's business performance
In the three months after the resumption of flights from July last year, Biman incurred a pre-tax loss of Tk125 crore, while the loss in the previous 12 months amounted to Tk14 lakh, according to official sources.
Biman actually made a profit of Tk483 crore from July 2019 to January 2020. But the company's overall accounts went in the red because of flight suspension between April and June last year. The carrier, however, operated many chartered flights during the time.
Regular flights with 30%-40% seats occupied by passengers are not making any profit now for Biman. Before the pandemic Biman had an average passenger load factor of 80%.
It is evident that the national carrier is struggling to stay afloat, but the worst is yet to come as the stimulus support of Tk1,000 crore given to Biman in April last year is running out fast.
The money is being used to bear the monthly fixed costs of Biman -- around Tk350 crore, including Tk150 crore paid in installments for bank loans, Tk98 crore for lease installment, Tk35 crore for the maintenance of aircraft and Tk50 crore for regular salaries.
On top of this, there is now the obligation to pay installments against the stimulus loan and increasing cost of flight operation for a rise in aviation and landing charges in different countries amid the global health crisis.
Pressed hard financially, Biman has failed to pay fuel and aviation charges to the national oil company, Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation and the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh.
Now the Biman authorities are planning to seek a second round of fund support from the government.