The return of several thousand Bangladeshi expatriate workers to their workplaces abroad, particularly in Saudi Arabia, suffered a major blow yesterday due to cancellation of eight flights from Dhaka.
National carrier Biman was forced to cancel five flights, four to Saudi Arabia and one to Singapore, while Fly Dubai cancelled two flights to Dubai, and US-Bangla Airlines cancelled a flight to Muscat, Group Captain AHM Touhid-ul Ahsan, director at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, told The Daily Star.
Abu Saleh Mostafa Kamal, managing director and CEO of Biman Bangladesh Airlines, said they could not operate four flights as the Saudi authorities did not grant them landing permission.
The Biman MD also said their Singapore-bound flight was cancelled due to ashortage of passengers as some cancelled tickets following the enforcement of countrywide lockdown and expiry of the 72-hour validity of the Covid-19 test reports.
Officials said Fly Dubai and US-Bangla Airlines also cancelled their flights due to a shortage of passengers.
With all international flights to and from Bangladesh suspended amid the lockdown, yesterday was the first day of operating special flights. Several hundred migrant workers, who reached Dhaka airport since early morning to catch Biman flights, suffered badly because of cancellation of flights.
Staging demonstrations at the airport and in front of the Biman office in the city's Motijheel, passengers said they had to spend a huge amount of money to reach Dhaka from different districts amid the countrywide "strict lockdown".
They also said Biman should have informed them well in advance about the flight cancellations.
Migrant workers blamed a lack of coordination between Biman and other authorities concerned and a lack of "sincerity" of the national flag carrier for their sufferings.
The Biman MD and Civil Aviation Secretary Mokammel Hossain, however, denied the allegations.
Speaking to reporters after an inter-ministerial meeting at the Dhaka airport, they said the Saudi authorities did not grant Biman flights landing permissions at the last moment.
"We tried to contact our valued passengers by calling them to inform about cancellation of flights. But we couldn't contact those passengers who bought tickets through travel agents as they didn't respond to our calls," said Biman MD Mostafa Kamal.
Sohrab Hossain, a migrant worker from Dinajpur, said he spent Tk 26,000 to rent a microbus for a trip to the capital to catch the Saudi-bound Biman flight which was scheduled to depart Dhaka at 6:15am yesterday.
Monsur Ahmed, another expatriate worker from Chandpur, said: "After enduring sufferings, I only came to know that my flight was cancelled. I am not sure when I will be able to return to Saudi Arabia."
Worried about returning to the Gulf country, Md Akhtar said his visa would expire on April 20. Several other migrant workers also said their visas would expire next week.
Expressing deep disappointment over the cancellation of his flight, Shahin Ahmed from Brahmanbaria's Nabinagar said he came home four months ago. He had to borrow Tk 4 lakh to bear family expenses, buy an air ticket and meet other expenses to go to Saudi Arabia.
"I obtained the visa after a long processing delay. I was scheduled to return to work tonight [last night]. All my dreams will be shattered if I fail to go to Saudi Arabia on time," he said.
According to Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira) and Association of Travel Agents of Bangladesh (Atab), about 20,000 to 25,000 migrant workers were supposed to return to work abroad in a week starting from April 14.
The government on April 14 suspended operation of all international passenger flights to and from Bangladesh for a week to contain the spread of Covid-19.
However, the authorities the following day decided to operate at least 100 special flights to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman and Singapore in a week from yesterday so that several thousand migrant workers can return to work.
Officials said at least four flights of three airlines left Dhaka for Dubai and Saudi Arabia yesterday and early today carrying expatriate workers.
Asked about the sufferings of passengers, Ahmed Munirus Saleheen, secretary to the expatriates welfare and overseas employment ministry, told reporters that the government would seriously look into the matter and discuss with the Saudi authorities extending the validity of visas and Iqamas (work permit) of those Bangladeshis whose visas and Iqamas would expire.
After the inter-ministerial meeting at the airport, the civil aviation secretary called upon migrant workers not to misunderstand them saying there was no lack of sincerity on their part to resolve the flight cancellation issue.
He also said all Biman passengers who failed to go to Saudi Arabia due to cancellation of flights were taken to a city hotel.
Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman, chairman of Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh, told reporters that they would look into whether there was any lack of sincerity on Biman's part to ensure operating its flights to Saudi Arabia.
PROTESTS BEFORE SAUDIA OFFICE
Meanwhile, several hundred migrant workers yesterday staged a protest in front of Saudi Arabian Airlines office at Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel in the capital demanding the airliner start operating flights to Saudi Arabia.
Saudia was supposed to start operating special flights from yesterday.
Witnesses said expatriate workers started arriving in front of the Saudia office since early morning. They blocked a road near Karwan Bazar intersection around 11:30am, halting traffic on the road for about an hour.
Raushan Ara, a migrant worker, said she spent Tk 25,000 to travel to the capital from Nilphamari by a microbus to catch a Saudia flight scheduled for departing Dhaka last night.
She said her visa would expire last night if she failed to return to Riyadh.
The demonstrators left the area around 2:00pm after Saudia officials assured them of operating special flights from today.