Biman Bangladesh Airlines (বিমান বাংলাদেশ এয়ারলাইনস) is the National Flag Carrier of Bangladesh, with its main hub at Zia International Airport in Dhaka, the capital of the country. It also operates flights from Shah Amanat International Airport in Chittagong and earns significant revenue from the connecting service to Osmani International Airport in Sylhet. Currently it provides passenger and cargo service in different international routes in Asia and Europe along with major domestic routes. It has Air Service Agreements with 42 countries, but maintains flights to only 18 at present. Until July 2007 the airline was wholly owned and managed by the Government of Bangladesh; on 23 July 2007, it was transformed into Bangladesh's largest Public Limited Company by the Caretaker Government of Bangladesh.
Created in February 1972 using vintage aircraft, Biman enjoyed an internal monopoly in Bangladesh aviation industry until 1996. In the decades following its founding, the airline expanded both its fleet and its horizon (at its peak Biman operated flights to 29 international destinations as far away as New York – John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York City) in the west and Tokyo – Narita in the east), but suffered heavily owing to mass corruption and frequent mishaps. The major reason behind the airline's huge financial loss and bad reputation for poor service and regular flight cancellations/delays is its ageing fleet, with some of its long-haul aircraft banned for safety reasons by the aviation authority of the US and EU countries. Annual Hajj flights, transporting non-resident Bangladeshi workers/migrants as well as Biman's subsidiaries, form an important part of the carrier's business. The rising oil price has created additional pressure on the airline, which is widely reported to have failed to meet its payment obligations to the state-owned petroleum corporation, BPC. Biman has a two-star ranking out of five by Skytrax, a United Kingdom-based consultancy. Currently the carrier is facing stiff competition from a number of local private airlines as well as some international carriers, which offer greater reliability and service standards, targeting the country's air transport sector which is experiencing 8% growth per annum owing to a large number of non-resident Bangladeshis.
After becoming a public limited company, Biman has trimmed the number of staff and turned its attention to modernising the fleet. Biman struck a deal with US aircraft manufacturer Boeing for procurement of 10 new generation aircraft along with options/purchase rights for another 10. The carrier is also in the process of leasing some aircraft for the interim period to re-start flights to some of the destinations in Asia, Europe and North America.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines was established on 4 January 1972 to be Bangladesh's national airline under the Bangladesh Biman Ordinance (Presidential Order No. 126). The initiative to launch the national flag carrier was taken by 2,500 former employees, including 10 Boeing 707 commanders and 7 other pilots, of PIA – Pakistan International Airlines, who submitted a proposal to the government on 31 December 1971 following the independence of Bangladesh. The airline was initially called Air Bangladesh International but was soon renamed Biman Bangladesh Airlines.
In modern Bengali, the word বিমান biman refers to "aeroplane", originating from the Sanskrit word vimāna, a name given to a flying machine mentioned in ancient Vedic literature. The logo, painted on the tail, is a stylised white stork (বলাকা bôlaka) inside a red circle. The initial livery was a dark blue line extending across the aircraft along the windows and covering the tail section. This was replaced in the 1980s by dark green and red lines, matching the colours of the Bangladesh flag, and has remained in place for over two decades. The bôlaka has also given its name to the Biman headquarters, the বলাকা ভবন bôlaka bhôban (Stork Building), and a landmark sculpture in Dhaka depicting storks is in front of Biman's former headquarters.
On 4 February 1972, Biman started its domestic service on the Dhaka–Chittagong, Dhaka–Jessore and Dhaka–Sylhet routes with a World War II vintage Douglas Dakota and Douglas DC-3, both gifts from the Bangladesh Air Force. On 10 February 1972, Biman experienced its first accident when the Douglas DC-3 crashed near Dhaka during a flight test, killing all five crew members. A Douglas DC-6 was immediately leased from Troll Air, a Norwegian airline, to keep the domestic service running. On 4 March 1972, Biman started its international operations with a once-a-week flight to London using a Boeing 707 chartered from British Caledonian. The short haul fleet was supplemented by a Fokker F27 from India on 3 March 1972 which saw the start of a daily flight between Kolkata (Calcutta) and Dhaka on 28 April 1972. Three additional Fokker F27s were acquired during March and September of the same year bringing the number of Fokker F27 aircraft to four. In the first year of operation, Biman operated 1,079 flights carrying just over 380,000 passengers.
Four additional Fokker F27s, purchased from Australia and the Netherlands, joined the fleet in 1973 enabling Biman to double the frequency of the Kolkata flight to a twice daily service. A Boeing 707 was added to the fleet in September and the flight to London became twice weekly, while a Chittagong–Kolkata flight also began operating at the same time. In 1974 operations were extended to Kathmandu (February), Bangkok (November) and Dubai (December). In 1976, Biman sold two of its Fokker F27s and bought another Boeing 707 to extend international services to Abu Dhabi, Karachi and Mumbai. Singapore was added to Biman's list of international destinations, when a third Boeing 707 was purchased in February 1977, followed by Jeddah, Doha and Amsterdam the following year which also saw the purchase of its fourth Boeing 707, from the United States. In 1977, Biman was converted into a public sector corporation to be governed by a board of directors appointed by the government. The airline broke even for the first time in 1977–78, and made a profit the following year. International destinations expanded to include Kuala Lumpur, Athens, Muscat and Tripoli in 1979, followed by Yangon, Tokyo and Dhahran in 1980.
In 1983, three Douglas DC-10s joined the fleet and the airline started to phase out the Boeing 707s. The network expanded further to include Baghdad (1983), Paris (1984) and Bahrain (1986). On 4 August 1984, Biman faced its worst accident when a Fokker F27 flying in from Chittagong crashed near Dhaka, killing all 49 on board including Captain Kaniz Fatema Roksana, the airline's first female pilot. The long haul fleet was supplemented by the purchase of two new Airbus A310s in 1996 followed by the addition of two more in 2000, from Singapore Airlines and Air Jamaica, and another in 2003.
In the 2005–06 fiscal year, Biman carried 1.15 million passengers, a growth of 70% from the previous decade's average. However, with the rise of private domestic carriers in Bangladesh, Biman's market share for domestic passengers dropped by 35% over the previous ten years' average, with only 162,000 passengers travelling with Biman in the domestic sector in the 2005–06 fiscal year. During the same period, Biman reported its biggest annual loss of over US$120 million (Tk8.3 billion), with a US$100 million (Tk6.9 billion) loss reported the following year. Biman also fell behind millions of dollars in payments to its fuel supplier, the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation.
During the late 1980s, Hossain Mohammad Ershad, President of Bangladesh at the time, served as president of Biman. After an early period of expansion and growth, Biman entered an era of nose-diving profits and slow growth, exacerbated by incompetent and corrupt management; with padding of purchases, falsified repair bills and unprofitable routes kept in operation for political reasons. Research conducted in 1996 found that Biman had 5,253 non-flying personnel, 30% more than Singapore Airlines which had almost a ten-times larger fleet. The report described Biman as "poorly managed, overstaffed, undercapitalized, and subject to excessive political interference in its day-to-day management.
In the 1992–93 fiscal year, accounts under the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism revealed that Tk22 million in tax was not paid to the Government. The audit carried out in 1999, also showed that Biman was owed Tk2.2 million by travel agents from the proceeds of ticket sales, most likely with the collusion of Biman officials. Additionally, Tk2.4 million was overpaid as incentive commission to the sales agents in violation of Biman policies. In 2007, the caretaker government launched an anti-corruption drive which saw the arrest of Shamim Iskander, the brother of ex-prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia and a former Biman flight engineer, on multiple corruption charges. This was shortly followed by the forced retirement of 35 other employees and officials, some of whom were close aides of Iskander.
In May 2007, the caretaker government approved plans to turn Biman into a Public Limited Company with shareholdings split between seven public sector organisations. As a part of the restructuring, the government put in place a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) to reduce the man-equipment ratio (MER) of 367:1 (ratio of manpower to aircraft). The industry average at the time was 200:1, with other Asian airlines operating with MERs of around 150:1. The VRS provided compensation based on length of service, at a cost to the government of over US$40 million which was borrowed from the World Bank. While Biman management had expected to reduce its workforce by 1,600 personnel, 2,162 applications for VRS were received, many from employees who expected to be dismissed with little or no severance if the quota was not achieved. Biman accepted 1,877 applications and affirmed that key personnel would not be allowed to leave the organisation via VRS.
On 23 July 2007, Biman Bangladesh Airlines Ltd became the largest Public Limited Company in Bangladesh. Earlier suggestions that the airline should be renamed Bangladesh Airlines Ltd were rejected. The government is the sole shareholder of the 1.5 billion shares but intends to offer 49% to the private sector while retaining majority ownership. The previous Managing Director, Dr. Abdul Momen, was appointed the CEO as well as MD in the new organisation. The six directors were appointed from the ministries of energy, commerce, finance, civil aviation, foreign affairs and the cabinet division with the cabinet secretary taking on the role as Chairman. The six secretaries and a joint secretary to the civil aviation ministry have been made the seven shareholders of the new PLC. In September 2008, Air Commodore Zahed Kuddus (retd) was appointed by the government to replace Dr Momen as the CEO of Biman. His previous civil aviation post was during 2002–05 when he was chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB). Prior to that he'd held various posts in the Bangladesh Air Force.
Following the privatisation, an initiative was launched by ex-Biman employees, who left the organisation via the VRS, to set up a competing airline. Names proposed for the airline included Air Bangla International, Biman Employees Airlines and Balaka. They were joined by previous managing directors of Biman, along with the former president of the Bangladesh Airline Pilots' Association.
A two-class service (J & Y) is operated on its wide-body airliners and a single class service on the smaller aircraft. The Maslin Executive Class cabin on its Airbus A310s is set up in a 2-3-2 configuration while the setup on the Douglas DC-10-30s is a more roomy 2-2-2 configuration. The economy class cabins are set up in a typical 2-5-2 configuration.
English and Bengali language newspapers are available on board the aircraft along with Biman's in-flight magazine, Digonto (Horizon) which is published quarterly. It covers a range of topics with emphasis on tourist destinations in Bangladesh and other places reachable by Biman. While the majority of the content is in English, for an international audience, some features are available in other languages including Bengali.
In-flight entertainment aboard Biman aircraft is rated "very poor" by Skytrax. The Douglas DC-10-30s are equipped with a projector in each cabin while the Airbus A310s have monitors that drop down from the ceiling below the luggage racks in the center of the aircraft. While other airlines using modern aircraft are able to provide more personal in-flight experiences via seatback LCD screens, Biman's ageing fleet has maintained the standard equipment available when the planes were manufactured.
Biman operates a frequent flyer programme which awards customers with a free round trip flight on production of ticket stubs for ten round trip journeys on Biman. The free ticket is for the route which has been flown the most out of the ten. Journeys on local routes are excluded from the offer.
An agreement was signed with Amadeus in 2007 to upgrade Biman's ticketing system with an e-ticketing solution in order to comply with International Air Transport Association rules, which set out a deadline of 31 December 2007 for all member airlines to switch over their ticketing systems. E-ticketing has enabled major airlines, such as British Airways, to provide online check-in facilities reducing the need to queue up at check-in counters. However, Biman has not made any attempts to improve customer service through the adoption of e-ticketing although it has been able to reduce its own costs. In 2005, Biman had briefly stopped using the Amadeus ticketing system when the government suspended the operation of a local Amadeus subsidiary following a court order, after allegations of money laundering. However, the suspension, lasting only a month, was lifted after the writ was appealed in the High Court.
While the air cargo industry in Bangladesh grew by 16.5% in the fiscal year 2003–04, Biman's cargo operations remained stagnant when private operators such as Bismillah Airlines, Best Aviation and Air Bangladesh produced a 108% growth from the previous year. The private operators increased their share of the cargo market by 10.6% and were responsible for handling 24% of the total 99,000 tons of cargo at the expense of both Biman and foreign airlines which saw a reduction in their shares by 4.6% and 6% respectively. Foreign airlines handled 47% of the total cargo with Biman taking on the remaining 29%.
As with its passenger service and management, corruption has also been rife at Biman Cargo. An investigation in 2004 uncovered irregularities in a number of Biman's Middle East operations which deprived the government of millions of dollars in revenue. Biman officials in Dubai were found to have been "extending special privileges" to the main freight handler in exchange for bribes. Smuggling of foreign currency and gold bars is reported to have taken place at the Biman Cargo Village by Biman and CAAB employees. A number of arrests were made but the perpetrators evaded punishment through lack of evidence and pressure from the CAAB union.
Biman has air services agreements with 43 countries but currently only operates its routes to 18, leaving room for expansion for which it lacks aircraft. The airline operates flights to several destinations in the Middle East, some destinations in South and South East Asia and only two destinations in Europe – Rome and London. Foreign airlines are encroaching on Biman's routes, particularly the lucrative London–Dhaka route, on which traditionally only Biman and British Airways have operated direct flights. In 2005, Air India commenced a route which permitted flights between London and Dhaka without requiring a transit flight which has occupied the space freed up by Biman when it reduced London–Dhaka flights. New airlines are also hoping to cash in on Biman's shortfall: Air Sylhet and Royal Bengal Airlines are two such airlines launched by expatriate British-Bangladeshis hoping to provide direct flights between London and Dhaka.
To curb the losses, Biman reduced the service to one flight per week and re-routed it through Manchester Airport in England, capitalising on travel demands from the expatriate Bangladeshi community in the north of England. On 8 April 2006, Biman's inaugural flight to Manchester landed at Manchester Airport en route to JFK. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had placed the CAAB into Category 2 (does not meet International Civil Aviation Organization standards) according to its International Aviation Safety Assessment Program, which placed additional restrictions on the country's airlines when flying to the US. A former CAAB assistant director made scathing remarks about the CAAB in an opinion article in the Aviatour, a monthly travel and tourism supplement of Bangladeshi news magazine Weekly Holiday. For Biman, this meant that it could continue flying to the US, but could not expand or make changes to its routes such as changing the transit from Brussels to Manchester. The FAA fined Biman for breaching its rules, and flights to New York were again re-routed through Brussels.
Previously, the FAA had warned Biman to replace its ageing DC-10s by December 2005. According to experts, these aircraft did not have the necessary equipment for safely crossing the Atlantic, despite the fact that United States-based Northwest Airlines operated DC-10 aircraft across the Atlantic until early 2007 without any problems. On 13 May 2006, the FAA refused permission for Biman flight BG011 (DAC-DXB-BRU-JFK) to enter its airspace, citing safety concerns over the ailing DC-10 aircraft being used on the route. The flight was diverted to Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Canada where the passengers were provided with alternative airline options to complete their journey. Canadian authorities inspected the aircraft and gave it a clean bill of health after which the aircraft returned to Dhaka without any passengers. The FAA eventually admitted it was mistaken and apologised for the error.
The incident put an end to the route, which had been losing US$80,000 per flight owing to its use of obsolete DC-10s. Biman decided to axe the route along with a number of other regional and domestic routes to curb the huge losses being incurred each month. However, in October 2007, Biman was directed by the caretaker government to resume flights to New York. Biman is planning to restart flights on the route with a leased Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. Biman has been given until 25 October 2008 (extended from an earlier deadline of 23 March 2008) to resume flights to the airport by the JFK airport authority or it will lose the landing slot permanently.
In 2002, the government opened the service to private operator Air Bangladesh. The initial private flights were plagued with delays, with both outgoing and return flights postponed for as long as nine days, which caused the Bangladesh government to return the Hajj flights' monopoly to Biman.
Biman's handling of Hajj flights has also been beset with troubles. In 2005, the State Minister for Civil Aviation and Tourism resigned after complaints that he set fares too high. In 2006, Biman took the unprecedented step of removing the business-class seats from its dedicated Hajj flights to accommodate more economy-class passengers. Procedural irregularities by the Hajj agencies delayed the confirmation of pilgrims' visas, and Biman had to cancel 19 flights owing to lack of sufficient passengers. Once the situation was resolved, Biman was then unable to offer the required number of flights to cope with the backlog of passengers.
In June 2007, the caretaker government approved a three-year Hajj policy aiming to alleviate the problems encountered during the previous two years. Hajj flights would also begin leaving from Bangladesh's two other international airports, Shah Amanat International Airport and Osmani International Airport. Biman put out a tender for the wet lease of two aircraft for additional Hajj flights and reached an agreement with Phuket Air. However, the deal fell through in August 2007 after Phuket Air demanded advance payment of 30% instead of the previously agreed 10%. Ausban Aeronautical Services of Australia was selected next, following a re-tender, to fill the gap left by Phuket Air.
Biman started operations with a gift from the Bangladesh Air Force of a vintage Douglas Dakota and Douglas DC-3 which had seen service in World War II. Domestic operations commenced with the acquisition of four Fokker F27 aircraft flying passengers to Chittagong and Sylhet from its base in Dhaka. Shortly afterwards, a Boeing 707, chartered from British Caledonian, joined the airline's fleet, allowing Biman to begin international flights. In 1983, Biman purchased three Douglas DC-10 aircraft from Singapore Airlines to provide services on its long haul routes.
For over two decades, the DC-10-30s were Biman's sole widebody airliner and served it well with no notable mechanical problems, a marked contrast to its domestic operations, operated with Fokker F28 and BAe ATPs, which were routinely out of service owing to various problems. In one incident, a government minister deboarded a flight and travelled by road when he learned that the aircraft was a BAe ATP. In January 2003, Biman leased two Boeing 737-300s which were used on domestic and regional routes for one and a half years. These acted as a replacement for the BAe ATPs.
During the mid 90s, Biman switched its airliner of choice for long-haul routes to the Airbus series of aircraft. Two new Airbus A310s joined Biman's fleet in 1996 followed by one more in 2000. It has nevertheless maintained its ailing DC-10 fleet which has been banned by several countries (notably the US) for safety concerns. The airline maintains its own ancillary and maintenance facilities at Zia International Airport, where it carries out all maintenance work on F28s, and C-Checks on DC-10–30s and A310–300s.
The ageing fleet has made it difficult for Biman to maintain flight schedules as the aircraft suffer from mechanical problems, leading to flight delays and cancellations. A number of aircraft have remained grounded owing to lack of parts as they are no longer manufactured and used parts are difficult to source.
In 2000, Biman put out an RFP for the acquisition of four wide-bodied aircraft to replace the DC-10s, but both the fleet renewal plans and the airline's expected privatisation were shelved by the government. A further attempt was made in 2005 to acquire new aircraft and plans were submitted for the purchase of ten new wide-bodied Airbus and Boeing aircraft at a total cost of US$1 billion. Boeing arranged to finance the purchase provided a guarantee was given by the Bangladesh government. After bureaucratic delays and a perceived lack of commitment from the government, it lost interest and the plans were cancelled. A similar attempt to purchase medium aircraft for domestic service was also postponed.
In March 2007, Biman put out a tender for the dry lease of two Airbus A310-300 and two Airbus A300-600 aircraft for two years. The sole response to the tender came from Star Aviation of the United Arab Emirates.
After Biman became a public limited company, fresh moves were made to procure new generation aircraft to replace its ageing fleet. In November 2007, Boeing made an offer to supply Biman four Boeing 777-200 (with options for two more) to be delivered by 2013 and four Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner (with options for two more) to be delivered by 2017 and provide similar aircraft on lease for the interim period starting from 2009. The average price of these aircraft was quoted as US$165 million. Airbus also made an offer to supply four Airbus A320 or Airbus A330 series aircraft at a much lower price than that of Boeing. To manage the fleet in the short run, Biman again floated a tender in January 2008 to purchase/dry lease with options to purchase two used Airbus A310-300 aircraft.
Finally, on 10 March 2008 Biman Management unveiled its plan to procure eight new generation wide-bodied aircraft from US aircraft manufacturer Boeing for a total cost of US$1.26 billion. The eight aircraft include four Boeing 777-300ER with average price of US$182.9 million per unit to be delivered in 2013 (in the months of July, August, October and December) and four yet to be launched Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners with average price of US$133.31 million per unit to join Biman's fleet in 2017 (in July, August, October and November). The Boeing 777-300ER will have a seating capacity of 463 while the Dreamliners will have a seating capacity of 294 passengers.
A Memorandum of Understanding was signed with Boeing on 15 March 2008 with Biman paying US$1.54 million initial payment with the final agreement signed on 22 April 2008. Of the remaining cost, US-based EXIM bank will finance 85% while a syndication of local banks will finance the rest. For the interim period, Boeing agreed to arrange lease of four Boeing 777 aircraft to Biman with two to be delivered in 2009 and two to be delivered by 2010. Shortly after, Biman also signed a deal with Boeing to purchase two Boeing 737-800 aircraft for its domestic operations to be delivered by 2015.
This long-awaited declaration came at a time when Biman is struggling hard to maintain its already-reduced international flight schedule with its ageing fleet that frequently remain grounded with technical difficulties. Biman have cut seven international destinations mostly in Europe and Far East along with its prestigious New York route owing to shortage of new generation fuel-efficient long-haul aircraft, which makes these operations unprofitable. Biman has already wet-leased a 542 seater Boeing 747-200 from Kabo Air of Nigeria for six months to operate flights to KSA and UAE. Another 512 seater Boeing 747 has been leased from Orient Thai Airlines.
|Airbus A310-300||3||221 |
|Boeing 737-800||(2 orders) |
|Domestic/Regional||Entry into service: 2015 |
2 may be leased in 2008
|Boeing 747-200||1||542 |
|International||Leased from Kabo Air|
|Boeing 747-300||1||512 |
|International||Leased from Orient Thai Airways|
|Boeing 777-300ER||(4 orders) |
|451||International||Entry into service: 2013 |
4 to be leased 2009–2010 but 2 may join in late 2008
|Boeing 787-8||(4 orders) |
|294||International||Entry into service: 2017|
|Fokker F28 Mk4000||3||80 |
|Domestic/Regional||Exit from service: 2015 |
Replacement Aircraft: Boeing 737-800
|McDonnell Douglas DC-10||4||274 |
|International/Domestic||Exit from service: 2012–2015 |
Replacement Aircraft: Boeing 777/787