Biman’s misadventures continue

Biman Misadventures
Illustration: Anwar Sohel

Biman is once again making the headlines and, as usual, for all the wrong reasons. The country's national flag carrier has recently come under fire for performing a botched job in arranging logistics to operate the Hajj flights for 2022. According to media reports, Biman's board approved an agreement-signing with Lithuania-based Heston Airlines for wet leasing of two 266-seat Airbus A330s from the latter to operate the Hajj flights—despite having own capacity to run the operation with existing resources—at its 276th board meeting, held on April 30.

Mahbub Jahan Khan, Biman's director for corporate planning and training, had reportedly placed the same proposal earlier in April, which was turned down due to lack of insufficient study and analysis. However, when he placed the proposal again, it was approved for agreement signing. It has been alleged by Biman insiders that, due to vested interest of a certain quarter, the proposal had been placed for the second time before the board.

Air Asia and Avico had offered cheaper rates for the same, but Biman opted for the costly Heston block-hour offer of USD 7,000 per hour. In the face of allegations of irregularities and mismanagement, and backlash from various quarters, it was later announced that Biman would operate the Hajj flights with its existing resources—as it had done last year—by diverting three aircrafts from Middle East routes to support the operation.

This, however, is not Biman's only misadventure of this year. Earlier in March, the airline came under severe criticism from aviation industry experts for flying an "experimental commercial" flight on the Dhaka-Toronto-Dhaka route, carrying around 40 government officials and two MPs free of cost. There were only 36 general passengers on the Dhaka-Toronto route, while the return flight had only six general passengers. The flight, operated with a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, had incurred an expense of around Tk 4 crore—a blatant misuse of the public's hard-earned money.

Even after repeated warnings from experts that the fight will not be commercially viable—despite having 298 seats, the flight would be able to accommodate only 120 to 130 passengers because of fuel and luggage weight—Biman was confident that it would be the contrary. In the end, the flight was shelved because of its lack of commercial viability.

Now, the question is: Who is going to take responsibility for the massive wastage of public money? And why did Biman high-ups not take into consideration the opinion of experts? When is Biman going to be held accountable for its misdeeds?

Over the years, Biman has been embroiled in multiple controversies with regards to mismanagement and corruption. One would recall the leasing of two Boeing 777 aircrafts from Egypt Air, for which Biman had to face a loss of Tk 1,223 crore in total.

The terms of the five-year lease, from 2014 to 2019, had been against the interests of Biman, and one of the aircrafts had to be grounded since 2017 due to engine defects. The two aircrafts had been returned in July and October of 2019, respectively, to Egypt Air.

The fact remains Biman is a highly inefficient organisation, mired in corruption and mismanagement since its inception of its operation, resulting in loss after loss, and significant wastage of public money.

While discussing the issue with this writer, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Executive Director, Dr Iftekharuzzaman, said, "Biman has so far run as a government organisation. They do not seem to have any business strategy or even a basic plan, and clearly operate on ad-hoc basis having no concern for value for money of investments and expenses. And Biman's organisation structure could not internalise the corporate culture required to compete in the international market, despite their salary and benefit structure, which is on per with corporate standard. This is reflected in their substandard customer service and their constant misuse of public money. Biman seems to enjoy some form of government protection, which is why they are hardly ever held accountable for their misadventures. Perhaps this has given them the idea that they can get away with anything. This scenario needs to be changed."

Dr Iftekharuzzaman further suggested a three-pronged strategy that the government can adopt to address the situation: Cleaning up the Biman board by appointing aviation industry experts whose strategic and policy directions will help steer the organisation in the right direction; streamlining the top management through the appointment of competent individuals who can implement strategies with a focus on achieving competitive edge in the international market; and introducing a stringent code of conduct to strengthen the internal control system and make Biman accountable internally and to the government.

In addition to these, the government also needs to demonstrate a strong political will to reform Biman internally and transform it into an efficient and profitable organisation. And it can do so by thoroughly investigating the misdeeds of Biman's management and officials and holding accountable the culprits, irrespective of their identity or political connections.

Biman, as an organisation, is in dire need of exhaustive Business Process Reengineering, without which it will never be able to come out of its laidback, government-office attitude, enforce internal accountability, or grow the appetite for commercial viability. If it is allowed to continue on its current course, its losses will only grow in scale and the public and the nation will suffer because of it.

The government should take a hard look at the mismanagement and misconduct of Biman's board and management, and immediately take uncompromising and committed measures to reform the organisation from within. Public money cannot be allowed to be wasted for the gains of certain vested quarters.


Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb