Having gained her law degree in London, 28-year-old Alipha headed home to Bangladesh with a head full of dreams and a suitcase full of her worldly possessions, the most valuable of which was a brand new gold graduation ring. She never imagined that she would have anything to worry about as her plane touched down at Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. Her luggage, however, took two hours to arrive, and when it finally did, she saw it had been broken open and the contents ransacked.
“My mother forgot to put the padlock through the appropriate gap between the zippers and the lovely folks at the airport pulled them back as far as they could, cut open the plastic bag that was covering everything inside, and took my brand new iPod and the gold ring,” Alipha said.
Incidents like this are all too common at the country’s main international airport, where ground handling services are provided by Biman Bangladesh Airlines, the national flag carrier. Industry insiders say that baggage handling at the airport has been mismanaged by Biman for years, with the ground staff gaining an infamous reputation for carelessness and even theft.
According to a report compiled by the airport authority, everyday over 100 passengers file for lost baggage at the Lost and Found section of the airport. Either their suitcases went missing after arriving in Dhaka or their belongings were stolen from the suitcases at the airport. Legally, they are eligible for compensation of just $20 for each kg of luggage that has been lost.
A blatant lack of accountability, say critics, has gotten to the point where ground handlers routinely pick out suitcases from flights they know are bound to be filled with valuable goods, such as flights from the Middle East and India.
Every day over 100 passengers file for lost baggage at the Lost and Found section of the airport. Either their suitcases went entirely missing after arriving in Dhaka or their belongings were stolen from the suitcases at the airport
“It took 5 hours for our baggage to arrive at the carousel although it took 45 minutes to get to Dhaka from Kolkata,” said Farnaaz Mahbub, a passenger. “When we asked them what was taking so long, an official said they were tired and taking a break, although we could see them manually checking the bags one by one before they put them on to the carousel.”
The worsening situation has compelled the Civil Aviation Authority, Bangladesh (CAAB) to act. The Dhaka Tribune has learned that CAAB is preparing a new ground handling policy after decades of complaints about theft and careless handling by Biman staff. The new policy will lead to CAAB inviting fresh tenders from companies for ground handling. Biman has monopolised ground handling at all of the country’s airports for decades.
The Civil Aviation and Tourism Ministry on August 13, formed an eight-member committee led by AHM Ziaul Haque, additional secretary (Biman & Civil Aviation) to form new regulations on ground handling.
The committee will include representatives from the Ministry of Law, Customs, NBR, Civil Aviation Authority, Biman Bangladesh Airlines and private airlines.
Wing Commander Ziaul Kabir, director (Flight Safety) of CAAB said that as a regulator, CAAB has drafted the new ground handling policy to provide better services at the airport.
This problem of theft has gone beyond affecting ordinary passengers, as LGERD Minister Ashraful Islam, Health Minister Mohammad Nasim and Former Civil Aviation Minister GM Quader also lost their suitcases at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
Despite setting up CCTV cameras, Biman has still been unable to stop its own staff from stealing.
Seeking anonymity, a Biman staff member said the suitcases were now being broken into while being transported from the plane to the airport building: “They pick the locks on suitcases, steal what they want and lock it back again, in seconds!”
Kauser, a traffic helper employed by Biman, was recently arrested by airport law enforcement for breaking into suitcases.
“Considering the out of control situation, we desperately need an experienced, organised company to manage the ground handling at the airport at this point,” said a CAAB official.
Biman Bangladesh declined to comment for this story.
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Passengers push luggage carts at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, Dhaka Dhaka Tribune
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Every day around 200 flights take off and land at Dhaka airport. Nearly 4 million people pass through the airport on 25 international airlines every year.
Each international flight on average has 400 passengers travelling into or out of the country. This has already proved to be too much for Biman to handle with insufficient number of equipment and employees.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority, Bangladesh (CAAB) draft policy, they will soon request tenders for ‘Ground Handling Service Providers Licence’ for two years.
There would be three types of licences on offer. Whichever company acquires them must also pay a licensing fee and will also have to pay 25% royalty to CAAB.
Although critics have questioned whether or not the company best suited for the job will win the tender and finally break Biman’s monopoly.
The Category A licence holder will be able to provide ground handling services to all the airports (both domestic and international flight). Category B licence holder will be able to provide ground handling services to only local airliners and category C licence holder will be able to provide services its own flight ground handling services – a service that already exists.
According to the daft policy, the fees and charge to provide ground handling service to Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport for a Category A has been set at Tk10 crore and the renewal fee has been set at Tk5 crore. Fee and charges at Sylhet Osmani airport, Chittagong Shah Amanat and Cox’s Bazar have been fixed Tk5 crore and the renewal fee has been set at Tk2.20 crore. License fee to provide services to others airports in the country would be Tk1 crore and the renewal fee has been set at Tk50 lakh.
To get the Category B licence, the fee and charges to provide ground handling service at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport has been set at Tk5 crore and the renewal fee at Tk1.5 crore. Fee and charges at Sylhet Osmany Airport, Chittagong’s Shah Amanat and Cox’s Bazar Airport fees has been fixed Tk3 crore and the renewal fee at Tk1.50 crore. License fee to provide services to others airport in the country would be Tk1 crore and the renewal fee at Tk50 lakh.
The draft policy said all the service providers will have to pay a 25% royalty to CAAB. The paid up capital for Category A is Tk200 crore and for Catagory B is Tk50 crore out which they must pay CAAB 5% as a security guarantee deposit.
CAAB sources said that after the draft ground handling policy gets approval from Civil Aviation and Tourism ministry, Biman will finally lose its monopoly but the General Manager and spokesperson of Biman, Shakil Meraj declined to comment on the issue.
Requesting anonymity a Biman official said he highly doubts any other company could survive doing business at such a high cost.
However, Imran Asif, CEO, US-Bangla Airlines told the Dhaka Tribune that the draft ground handling policy is much better than the existing system.
CAAB will monitor and the services provider by the new ground handling operator every year. The draft also states that no operator will be allowed to purchase or sell any equipment. They will need approval to appoint high ranking officials and no employee would be allowed to join labour unions or organisations.
The Dubai based ground handling services company Dnata, Swiss company Swissport and a Chinese company SATS expressed their interest in partnering with Biman for ground handling services.
Historically, it has been very hard to break Biman's monopoly. In 2006, there was a proposal to form an independent company to operate the ground handling services but failed to get approval from the government because pressure from Biman, which earns the government Tk500 crore yearly.