While Hazrat Shahjalal International airport is struggling to maintain its regular flight schedule because of space constraints amid the construction of its third terminal, helicopter operations to and from the country's principal airport only put an additional burden on it.
Increased air traffic caused by helicopter operations at the airport delays the movement of other scheduled flights, says the civil aviation ministry.
In this situation, the need for elevated helipads and heliports is constantly rising in the country. But currently, there is no heliport in the country, and private operators are not allowed to build elevated helipads.
Taking this issue into cognizance, the civil aviation ministry has embarked on formulating two separate policies for the establishment and operation of elevated helipads and heliports so that private operators also can come forward.
Besides, work is underway to build the country's first heliport at Ashkona in the capital.
A heliport is similar to an airport, a facility designed to support the takeoff and landing of several helicopters from its hub. On the other hand, a helipad is a single takeoff and landing zone designated for use by one helicopter at a time.
Elevated helipads are usually placed on the roof of the tallest building in an area or on a high infrastructure. Due to the high altitude, the take-off and landing of the helicopter are quite easy.
A member of the policy formulation committee and also an official of the Ministry of Civil Aviation wishing anonymity told The Business Standard that at least three corporate groups, including Square and Shikder Medical, applied for establishing elevated helipads in 2018.
"We took an initiative to formulate heliport and elevated helipad policies in 2019, but the process got delayed as the public security division of the home ministry raised some concerns. However, the process has now picked up pace as we sat with the home ministry," the official said, adding the Civil Aviation Authority can approve the construction of helipads in horizontal areas (plain land), but at present, there is no policy framework for the establishment of elevated helipads.
At present, helicopters going outside Dhaka can land at airports, stadiums, school grounds, or any other open space, subject to the permission of the Civil Aviation Authority, and the local administration.
The growing business
The 2019 draft policy on the establishment and operation of heliports states that the demand for using helicopters has significantly increased in the country in recent years, thanks to the growing and rapidly changing economic and business environment, as more and more people are travelling by helicopters for business, recreation, and emergency medical needs.
To cater to the divergent needs of VIPs, CIPs, corporate heads, medical evacuation, travel agents, tour operators, aerial shooting, religious preachers, etc, at least 10 organisations offer helicopter services.
Currently, 10 organisations have got air operator certificate (AOC) from the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (Caab). They have 34 helicopters in their fleet. While the already certified organisations are continuously enriching their fleet size by buying new helicopters, several other firms' applications for the AOC await approval by CAAB.
The country's private helicopter service activities at present are dominated by a few large business groups.
Currently, the helicopter operating companies are Square Air, South Asian Aviation, Meghna Aviation, BRB Air, ATL Aviation, Partex Aviation, R&R Aviation, Bangla International Airlines, Bashundhara Airways, and BCL Aviation.
Space constraints at airports are an obstacle
All the 10 certified helicopter companies have been allotted space at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport for setting up offices and helicopter hangars, from where the companies conduct their daily operations. The helicopters are also parked at the airport at night.
But the current space constraints at Shahjalal Airport and other airports in the country is an obstacle to providing AOCs to any new helicopter company.
Against such a backdrop, some helicopter operators have applied to the civil aviation ministry seeking permission to establish heliports and helipads.
In response, the ministry has formed a committee to formulate elevated helipad and heliport policies.
Complaints about taxation
Meanwhile, operators have claimed the helicopter business is failing to grow in accordance with market demand and is yet to reach a sustainable position (profitable business) because of high supplementary duty and VAT.
None of the 10 companies having AOC are turning any profit despite the fact that they charge passengers a flat rate of Tk66,000 per hour, excluding VAT, according to industry insiders.
Square Air Ltd, a member of Square Group, has been operating helicopter services since 2010.
In order to facilitate movement safely and comfortably for top executives, as well as air ambulance/ emergency medical services (EMS) services for Square Hospital, Square Air has purchased the brand new helicopters Bell 407 and Robinson R66.
Kaium Sarker, senior sales executive at Square Air, told TBS, "We have three helicopters both for use in corporate needs and medical evacuation. When needed, we convert the helicopters into air ambulances by providing emergency medical amenities."
"Any organisation may use this facility for their business and medical needs. But many people who need emergency medical services cannot afford the high air ambulance cost. The per-hour rent of a four-seater helicopter is Tk84,500, and it is Tk2.45 lakh per hour for a seven-seater one," he added.
He mentioned that despite having huge demand in the market, the helicopter business in the country is yet to become viable as helicopter transport is subject to 15% Vat and 30% supplementary duty.
The government should decrease the supplementary duty to help the sector attain sustainability, he added.
"Earlier, we used the helipad at Square hospital. But, now we use Dhaka airport as Caab has imposed restrictions on the use of helipads," he said.
Several business groups, other than the certified 10, have helicopters for private use, but they do not provide aviation services. Instead, they let other aviation services operate their vehicles on a rental basis.
For example, Ad-din Foundation has an air ambulance, but it takes operational and maintenance services from South Asian Airlines.
In 1999, South Asian Airlines (SAA) rolled out the first commercial helicopter service in Bangladesh.
Sources concerned said Ad-din Foundation is going to purchase two Bell 505 helicopters having state-of-the-art medical equipment to provide fast and modern services to critical and emergency patients across the country.
"At present, Ad-din Hospital uses an air ambulance to transport doctors across the country. As helicopter services are too costly, we will use two new air ambulances both for corporate services and medical purposes," Ad-din Hospital director general Dr Nahid Yasmin told TBS.
"We have a plan to build a heliport and helipad in Jashore. But the authorities should provide duty and VAT exemption to the sector so that the cost for critical patients can decrease, "she added.
Group Captain Md Mukeet-ul-Alam Miah, director (Flight safety and regulation), Caab, told TBS "Market research needs to be done to understand the extent to which the use of helicopters has increased. And we have no say in raising or reducing VAT."
Country's first heliport at Ashkona
Work has already started on building the country's first-ever heliport at Ashkona in the city with the aim of overseeing the operations of helicopters. But the process is being delayed due to a crisis of funds.
"We wanted to build the heliport with Jica investment under the third terminal project of Dhaka airport. But Jica did not agree to build the heliport," Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman, chairman of Caab, told TBS.
"However, now we are planning to build the heliport with our own funds. We have already sent the development project proposal to the ministry," he added.