Mizanur Rahman, a Bangladeshi expatriate living in London, came back home for a short period recently. Before leaving for London, he contacted a Bangladeshi helicopter service provider to travel to Comilla from Dhaka.
“Commuting this way is much easier,” he said.
Using helicopters for commuting is not about luxury or showing off any more. An increasing number of people – businessmen and patients in particular – are opting for this mode of transportation to avoid the traffic jams and save time.
Helicopters' civilian use in Bangladesh has been limited to marriage ceremonies, film shootings and advertisements, political programmes and visiting economic zones.
In recent years, helicopter use for commercial purposes or travelling has increased significantly.
Some tour operators now offer helicopter rides at less than Tk17,000 per hour per person. The flying routes are Dhaka-Mawa-Dhaka and Dhaka-Jamuna bridge-Dhaka.
A helicopter company official said businessmen mostly travel to Mongla, Ruppur, Syedpur and Meghnaghat from Dhaka. Some companies are planning to launch the services on Khulna-Dhaka and Dinajpur-Dhaka routes.
Air Commodore (retd) Iqbal Hossain, advisor at Meghna Aviation, told the Dhaka Tribune that helicopter transport business was not very profitable.
“But it has good prospects. It takes time to get back the investment. Apart from renting them out, most helicopter owners also use them for their company's work,” he said.
Despite a huge demand for moving patients via helicopters, there are only two helipads in Dhaka City – one at Dhaka airport, and the other at Square Hospital.
“We need at least 50 helipads in the capital,” Iqbal said. “When a patient is brought to Dhaka, he or she has to land at the Shahjalal airport. It takes time to move critical patients to hospitals from there. We have urged Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) to build more helipads in Dhaka.”
South Asian Airlines first introduced commercial helicopter services in 1999 with two helicopters. At present, 11 companies commercially operate more than 20 helicopters.
The companies are South Asian Airlines, Impress Aviation, Partex, Square Air Limited, Sikder Group (R & R Aviation), BRB, Bengal group, Akij group, TMSS, Viyellatex, Meghna Aviation, and PHP Group.
CAAB sources said it was difficult for one inspector to properly inspect so many helicopters.
Squadron Leader (retd) Md Mohiuddin, chief engineer at Aero Technologies Limited, which maintains Impress and Partex helicopters, said profit from helicopter business was marginal. “It will be tough for any aviation company to survive solely on helicopter transport business,” he said.
Several companies have shut down their services in recent years. Aero Technologies, for example, launched its services in 2000 and shut down in 2008. Best Air closed down its business within several months of launching in 2002.
Sources said the fare of a six-seater helicopter is Tk115,000 per hour while four-seater helicopters charge Tk65,000 to Tk75,000. Customers have to pay 15% VAT apart from Tk5,000 to Tk10,000 for stopover or ground waiting.
Bangladeshi companies mainly operate Bell 407, Bell 429, Euro-copter (Airbus helicopter), Robinson R44, and Robinson R66 model helicopters.
A brand new Bell 407 costs $6 million while Bell 429 costs $9m. Bangladeshi companies prefer used helicopters (one to two years old) that cost between $2.5m and $3m.
An official of a helicopter company explained that it usually takes three to three-and-a-half years to get back the money spent to purchase a used helicopter.
“It will take less time to get back investment as helicopter services are becoming more and more popular,” the official said. “But this sector needs policy support from the government to flourish.”