RMG exporters fear losses for airport drawbacks
Apparel exporters are apprehending significant losses in business for missing freight transport deadlines as the number of scanners and flights at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka is currently insufficient to meet demand.
Now is the prime time to ship goods for the upcoming Christmas sales. With stocks almost depleted in the pandemic's fallout, Western retailers and brands are asking for flying goods to stores to catch the peak season for sales.
But shipments are facing delays as there are just two explosives scanners, which are currently having to deal with 1,200 tonnes of dry cargo every day, of which 85 per cent are garment items.
On a normal day, 800 tonnes of cargo used to be run through the two scanners, which was already a very difficult task, said Nurul Amin, managing director of freight forwarder Tower Freight.
Now the task is almost impossible, said a senior official of a chartered cargo flight operator in Dhaka asking not to be named.
The situation has turned more difficult for the shortage of air freight flights, be it dedicated ones or through the spare luggage space on board passenger planes, for increased demand for export.
However, in comparison to the pre-pandemic period, such flights have increased from 15 a day to 25 at present, he said. Yet, they cannot ship all the cargoes and nearly 200 tonnes of goods can not be shipped in absence of scanning, said Amin.
Bangladeshi suppliers have been facing the flight shortages for the past two months, alarmingly in this peak season for garment business following the reopening of economies, said Kutub Uddin Ahmed, chairman of Envoy Group, a leading garment exporter.
Almost all airlines are now prioritising China and many have even been suspending flights from Dhaka recently as they are getting three to four times higher payments from Chinese suppliers, said Ahmed, also an air freight operator.
Demand has soared for the Christmas season while urgent flights are being opted for centring shipment backlogs resulting from garment factory closures in August for the Eid vacation and lockdown, he said.
Another complexity has arisen for new rules introduced last week, stipulating that exports can enter the airport 30 hours prior to the flight.
Many a time, there were long queues of trucks sometimes going as far as Mymensingh and waiting for as long as two to three days to enter the airport, said Nurul Amin.
Trucks, even if they are carrying exports scheduled to fly within hours, are unable to jump the queue, leading to loading deadlines being missed and for which many flightshave taken off leaving behind their cargo, he added.
In such a time of crisis with the influx of cargo, four out of the airport's eight loading bays have been left inoperative, he said.
"We need bigger scanning machines, capable of scanning whole containers in one go, to timely complete scanning," said an airline official asking not to be named.
The people tasked with operating the scanners need to be professional, as exporters and airline officials very often complain that whenever there is urgency and pressure of work orders, these operators can be bribed to cut into bookings lists, he said.
The air freight operators have also doubled charges against the influx of exports, he said.
Even two months ago, sending one kilogramme of goods from Dhaka to any European city had cost between $3.20 and $3.50. Now it is between $5.50 and $6, said the official.
That being sent to the US is costing between $10 and $12 whereas previously it was $5 and $5.50, he said.
"…the schools in the US have been reopened for which demand for garment items has increased significantly in the Western world," he said.
Some of the scanners have been out of service since September 17, said Kabir Ahmed, president of Bangladesh Freight Forwarders Association, in a letter to the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (Caab) that very day.
"With such a crucial circumstance and a massive peak, it's quite tragic that Caab (Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh) and Biman (Bangladesh Airlines) are unable to manage cargo operations efficiently," he said.
"Despite my numerous requests on a variety of concerns, Caab failed to take action on time. I have grounds to believe that Caab paid no heed to our requests," he added.
Installation work of new scanners is going very slowly while two new explosives scanners provided by Japan International Cooperation Agency are presently awaiting European Union validation following a 15-month delay, he said.
"I believe that the entire export process and the management at HSIA is on the verge of collapsing," read the letter.
Talking to The Bangladesh Monitor, AHM Touhid-ul Ahsan, executive director of the airport's cargo operations, however, said one and a half times morecargo was being handled at the airport daily compared to the pre-pandemic levels.
The number of flights is not the issue, as there are many other anomalies taking place for which exporters, freight forwarders and airlines are responsible and need to extend cooperation to the airport to resolve, he claimed.
"Cargo export has become a national problem at the moment. It is not fair to give all the blame only on HSIA because we are the service provider and facilitator," lamented Ahsan.
"We want cargo movement to be expedited flawlessly. There are several agencies involved here: Caab, Biman, HSIA, freight forwarders, and exporters. We all must cooperate and be transparent in order to solve the issues together and let cargo movement flourish further," he said.
Earlier, Biman Bangladesh Airlines was the custodian of the airport's warehouse. The airport authority only looked after security and facility issues while Biman Bangladesh Airlines and freight forwarders together worked on moving the cargo.
But currently the warehouse has become overloaded with cargo.
With complaints coming in, the airport authority has started working on the issue and became aware of several malpractices.
This includes exporters bringing in their goods two to three days ahead of the flights, said Ahsan.
There are some who even store their goods in the airport's warehouse without any prior booking, as if it was their personal space, he claimed.
Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said now was the time for Bangladesh's garment sector to recoup losses incurred last year and take a U-turn as work orders were soaring.
"We need operation of the airport to be done very smartly so that we can reach goods to our buyers timely," he told The Daily Star over the phone.