Staff and equipment crisis

Ground handling constitutes taking care of the passenger check-in counters, boarding, loading and unloading baggage from the aircraft, passenger service, engineering service and GSE (Ground Service Equipment).

The national flag carrier Biman Bangladesh Airlines is in charge of this. All airlines pay Biman a fixed fee for this service. However, due to a shortage of staff and equipment and lack of proper supervision, this work is not carried out smoothly. Six months ago, pressure mounted as the night flights were shifted to the day and the evening, but the ground handling staff were not raised.

According to the Biman authorities, everyday 110 to 115 flights of 27 airlines land and take off at Shahjalal airport, carrying around 20,000 passengers. Biman has neither an adequate workforce nor equipment to provide this huge number of passengers and airlines with the required service.

Biman Bangladesh sources say that the ground handling service at the Shahjalal airport has around 1,200 persons employed. It also has over 200 pieces of 18 different types of equipment including high loaders, transporters, dollies, trollies, towing tractors, wheelchairs and so on. It is difficult to manage the present pressure at the airport with this.

What the concerned officials say

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Shahjalal airport's executive director, Group Captain Kamrul Islam, said it takes anything between 20 to 60 minutes to get one's luggage at the luggage belt. In some cases it takes up to two hours even. They are trying to overcome this situation with their limited resources. Handling the pressure of flights of 24 hours arriving within just 16 hours, and with the same number of staff, is challenging. Things will improve by the first week of June. All out efforts of all the concerned organisations are being made to bring the situation under control.

When asked about the shortage of ground handling equipment, he referred to the Biman Bangladesh authorities for a reply to the question.

General manager (airport service) of Biman Bangladesh, Azizul Islam, claims that they had adequate equipment for all this.

He said, "The reshuffling of the flight schedule has increased the pressure of flights. There is less time and that is creating the problems. And the recruitment of staff is a routine process. Some are going on retirement, new persons are being recruited. All the organisations are working together at the airport. We are working hand in hand. This problem will not last."

The Biman general manager pointed to a lack of capacity at the Shahjalal airport as a reason for the passengers' sufferings. He said, it is hard to take care of the passengers with the existing capacity of the airport. Presently, at times, there are 11 aircraft taking off and landing every two hours. That means 22 flights. All the planes have to be readied before departing with passengers and cargo. This becomes is overwhelming.

Passenger sufferings

While visiting the airport on 10 and 11 May, mounted pressure of arriving passengers was found between 8:00 and 11:00 in the morning. There is a pressure of passengers particularly at the boarding bridge areas and the customs. And the pressure of departing passenger mounts from 7:00 in the evening till midnight. The pressure falls on the check in counters and immigration at this time.

Concerned persons said that at times there are eight to ten international flights taking off or landing at the airport within one hour. There are only eight boarding bridges at the airport. If three international flights arrive around the same time, passenger service goes haywire. With a shortage of staff and equipment at the boarding bridge, it sometimes takes time to unload luggage from the aircraft. That is why it takes time for the baggage to reach the belt, sometimes even over two hours.

Kazi Ibrahim Khalil arrived from Germany on 9 May. He said, "My flight landed at 9:00 in the morning. I waited at the luggage belt. Many bags come along, but not mine and a few others. Later we saw a few bags lying by the side of the belt. I got my luggage after two hours. My bag had been wrapped in foil, but the foil as no longer there. I checked my bag after coming home, but nothing was missing. How does it feel having to wait for two hours at the airport here after a 12-hour journey?"

Passengers at the airport are being harassed in all sorts of ways. I am not overall satisfied. Those at the ground level need to change their mentality
Salman F Rahman, private industry and investment advisor to the prime minister

No improvement in ground handling even in 6 months

On 10 November, the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) announced a suspension of flights from 12:00 midnight to 8:00 in the morning 10 December to 10 June at the Shahjalal airport in order to facilitate construction work of the third terminal's high speed connecting taxiway and lighting sector. However, as the construction work finished before schedule, it was announced that flights would resume normal schedule from 1 May.

According to the airlines and airport authorities, though the announcement was made about resumption of night flights, this hasn't been resumed fully because most of the airlines had sold their tickets up till June already, in keeping with the announced schedules of no night flights. That is why it will take some time before the night flights return to normal.

In a letter to the Biman managing director (MD) on 13 December about the mismanagement of ground handling at the Shahjalal airport, the civil aviation ministry wrote, there is a crisis of staff and equipment in ground handling at the airport. A lack of supervision and proper planning has also been noticed. Due to the lack of proper planning, ground handling management at the airport has come to a standstill.

After this letter, ground handling at the airport picked up a bit in the beginning of this year. But over the past two weeks, the mismanagement has spiraled again.

Salman Fazlur Rahman (Salman F Rahman), private industry and investment advisor to the prime minister, has expressed his dissatisfaction with this mismanagement and the standard of passenger service. After an inspection of the Shahjalal airport on 9 May, he said, "Passengers at the airport are being harassed in all sorts of ways. I am not overall satisfied. Those at the ground level need to change their mentality."

Salman F Rahman said that the government was considering outsourcing the airport's ground handling service to a third party.

Foreign airlines unhappy

Meanwhile, sources at the Airline Operator Committee (AOC), an association of 27 airlines with flights to Bangladesh, said that Biman Bangladesh Airlines is unable to properly manage the ground handling at the Shahjalal airport. Biman is failing to provide due service in time due to a staff shortage. Yet the airlines are having to pay from 2,200 US dollars to 5,700 US dollars per flight, depending on the service required.

AOC member and senior official of a foreign airline, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo, "The international flights are delayed every day due to delays in the ground handling. The planes even have to wait in the bay areas some times for one or two hours, or even more. Yet fees are being paid to Biman Bangladesh Airlines for these tasks to be carried out in time."

The official said the planes often have to air on the taxiway, sometime even for over one and a half hours. Citing an example, he said on 8 May at 9:38pm, a flight Saudi Airlines wide-bodied aircraft arrived from the Middle East. It requires two high loaders to unload the baggage from this aircraft. But Biman only provided one high loader, that too after a 44 minute delay. It took the passengers of that flight two hours to get their luggage.

Another official of a different foreign airline, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo, on 9 May there was a flight at 9:25pm and another at 11:10pm. Four counters were given for the 700 passengers of the two flights, which was quite inadequate. There was a two-hour delay for the passengers of the two flights to check-in and complete all the other formalities.

Former director of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, Group Captain (retd) MA Zakir Hasan, said that the ground handling problems at the airport were nothing new.

He told Prothom Alo that Biman was entirely responsible for this management.

He said to bring the situation under control, for the time being the service must be monitored by competent persons and senior Biman officials must pay surprise visits to observe the situation first hand.

"Action must also be taken against those who mishandle the ground handling. Until the third terminal construction is complete, the situation must be handled in this manner. The concerned officials must have more initiative and commitment," Zakir Hasan added.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir