Biman initiates effort to upgrade ground handling operation with foreign partner

Biman GHDhaka : At long last, Biman Bangladesh Air-lines Limited has initiated move to upgrade ground handling operation through joint venture with reputed foreign operator.

Aircraft ground handling defines the servicing of an aircraft while it is on the ground and (usually) parked at a terminal gate of an airport. Ground-handling jobs cover functions like passenger check-in, aircraft handling, fuelling, cleaning, mooring, baggage handling and boarding/deplaning passengers.

The handling addresses the many service requirements of a passenger aircraft between the time it arrives at a terminal gate and the time it departs on its next flight. Speed, efficiency and accuracy are important in ground handling services in order to minimise the turnaround time that is_ the time during which the aircraft must remain parked at the gate.

Unfortunately, the quality of ground services at Hazrat Shah Jalal International Airport (HSIA)_ the main gateway to Bangladesh by air_ and two other international airports of the country continue to be poor. The situation is causing numerous problems and sufferings to all users_ airlines and passengers alike.

The services
Ground-handling inside the airport terminal provides arrival and departure services. These services include check-in counter services for departing passengers. The agents are required to meet a flight on arrival as well as provide departure services including boarding passengers, closing the flight, etc. Staffing the Transfer Coun-ters, Customer Service Coun-ters Airline Lounges, etc.

Field operation service dispatches the aircraft, maintains communication with rest of the airline operation, at the airport and with Air Traffic Control.
Ground-handling deals with very complex operations. Even though heavy equipment is required to perform the tasks during a turnaround, flexibility is the key point to reach maximum efficiency. Therefore, adaptability skills of all workers and managers are crucial.

Biman’s monopoly
As we can see, it is a very complex situation where delivery precision and safety are very important issues. Biman Bangladesh Airlines Limited is for more than four decades enjoying monopoly and is solely responsible for providing ground services to all carriers operating to and from Bangladesh. But it is ill equipped on both equipment and human aspects, to do the job properly.

Over the period of time, the number of airlines operating to and from Bangladesh has increased significantly. But Biman failed to equip itself properly to handle increased work load. This resulted in deterioration of ground handling services greatly, but carriers have no alternative but to tied with Biman irrespective of poor quality services.

So, naturally all the carriers have become totally unhappy because of the poor services they are getting in return of “comparatively fat handling fee” that they are paying to Biman. When asked whether they are satisfied with the ground handling services, reply of all the airlines operating to and from HSIA is a loud “No”.

The poor ground handling and all around dissatisfaction, however, is nothing new. Though it is cash cow for Biman-earning around Tk 400 crore a year-no serious effort has been made to modernise the equipment and build up skilled and efficient manpower.

Biman has never been able to regularly procure ground service equipment for replacement, as well as capacity building. So, it has not been able to shake off problems concerning shortage of equipment. In addition to the shortage of equipment, there is also shortage of manpower to do the job properly.

Ground support equipment (GSE) is the support equipment found at an airport, usually on the ramp, the servicing area by the terminal. This equipment is used to service the aircraft between flights. As its name implies, GSE is there to support the operations of aircraft on the ground. The functions that this equipment plays, generally involve ground power operations, aircraft mobility and loading operations (for both cargo and passengers).

For example, activities undertaken during a typical aircraft gate period include: cargo loading and unloading, passenger loading and unloading, potable water storage, lavatory waste tank drainage, aircraft refueling, engine and fuselage examination and maintenance and food and beverage catering.

Airlines employ specially designed GSE to support all these operations. Moreover, electrical power and conditioned air are generally required throughout gate operational periods for both passenger and crew comfort and safety, and many times these services are also provided by GSE.

The list of about 22 equipment of diverse nature that ground handlers need, shows that these activities require huge investments. Ground handling service providers are required to buy all this equipment at a huge cost.

Shortage of every thing
The available equipment and manpower, is not enough to moderately efficient handle of peak time traffic. The pattern of arrival and departure of flights will show that all the flights are concentrated in the morning and evening. In case of delay_ which is more or less a regular feature_ the situation aggravates further.

Shortage of Ground Service Equipment, skilled and semi-skilled manpower, lack of efficiency and dedication of existing manpower are the main reasons for poor ground handling at HSJIA. Schedule regularity has become a matter of grave concern for the foreign carriers. The airport staff of all the operating foreign carriers are not in a position to ensure timely departure of their flights. They are at the mercy of the ground staff of Biman. Turn-round time from HSIA sometime become longer, because of inefficient ground handing.

For the transportation of passengers from aircraft parked outside to terminal, ramp coaches are required. Biman recently has procured two modern ramp coaches, but this is not just enough. In the past similar coaches were seen in operation, which went out of operations, within very short time. In most of its 43-year history, Biman used ordinary bus to transport passengers, sometime rentednes.

Chittagong and Sylhet
Condition of ground handling at Chittagong and Sylhet, the other two international airports are even much inferior to HSIA. None of these two airports are equipped with even minimum required facilities.

Past efforts
Following up gradation of Shah Amanat International Airport at Chittagong, the government tried to privatise its operation. Through international bid of Thai Airways was selected. But government failed to hand over the airport to Thai, in face of opposition from interested quarters.

In the past, In February 2007 to be precise, through the UAE Embassy in Dhaka, Danata gave a full comprehensive proposal for complete Ground Handling at HSIA to Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism. The Chairman of Dnata wrote letter to the Adviser in charge of MOCAT in March 2007 and the Dnata wrote several letters to the Adviser, Secretary and Chairman of CAAB. But no answer was given from Bang-ladesh side. It is not known why the Bangladesh side could not say “Yes” or “No.”

Most recently, former Managing Director of Biman Kevin John Steele also tried to modernise ground handling services through outsourcing. Some reputed operators responded. But the effort fizzled out. Kevin also estimated that around US$10-15 million will be required to modernise ground handling.

Effort anew
To improve the situation and make poor ground handling things of the past, Biman Bangladesh Airlines Limited initiated move to appoint a consultant to help draw agreement for joint venture in this regard. In December 2014 Biman floated international advertisements to appoint consultant for drawing up of tender documents for a ground-handling joint venture (JV) at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (HSIA) in Dhaka, Shah Amanat International Airport in Chittagong, and Osmani International Airport in Sylhet.

After selection of consultant, tender for joint venture is expected to be floated in March or April this year. It is learnt that the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism has, on principle decided to go for joint venture to upgrade ground handling services at three international airports of the country.

It is relevant to mention here that in the back drop of schedule irregularity and poor ground handling, Biman on January 27, 2015 announced an agreement on performance standards with the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism. The assurances include specific measures and actions to improve ground-handling.

Why joint venture?
Modernisation of ground handling is the only way to improve the situation and elevate status of HSIA, SAIA and Osmany_ the three international airports. But huge investment is needed to procure modern equipment and trained efficient manpower. On its own, Biman is not in a position to make the investment.

So, the government has asked Biman to seek reputed partner to upgrade and improve ground handling services. Considering the existing financial and manpower situation, Biman has no alternative but to seek foreign investors in the form of partner to modernise the ground handling operations.

It is true that ground handling is a big source of income for Biman. But its inability to improve services is harming the greater interest of the country. The only way the interest of both the country and Biman can be protected is to find an able investor in the form of partner. Investments for upgrading capability and efficient operation like ground handling are certainly to increase value of Biman.

A time has come to act and take measures to improve quality of ground handling at all the international airports of the country. It would have been better if Biman could do it alone. But Biman is far from being in a position to upgrade ground handling operation on its own. So the best alternative left is joint venture with reputed operator. The sooner the new effort comes to fruition, the better for the country and users of international airports.

Published Date : 16 February, 2015

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