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Jessore

Bangladesh's friendly skies

Fly Your Own Airline. That was the slogan of United Airways (not to be confused with the larger US-based carrier, United Airlines), a private airline in Bangladesh. It was emblazoned across the aircraft and at the check-in counter of the domestic terminal of Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal airport. I’d like to think it meant the crew would invite you to take over the controls once the plane has reached a safe cruising altitude and take a selfie in the cockpit against a background of flashing instrument lights, but it was probably just the product of a brainstorming session with a marketing team to make passengers feel part of the airline family.

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I didn’t have the opportunity to test the slogan because United Airways, notorious for delays, flight suspensions and poor in-flight amenities, ceased operations in mid-2016, but I’ve flown with three other private airlines—Regent Airlines, Novo Air and US Bangla. All connect to domestic destinations and offer a few international flights, mostly to India and Southeast Asia. After the government airline, Biman Bangladesh (Air Bangladesh), lost its monopoly of the skies in 1996, the airline industry literally took off and competition is cutthroat. My total bill for three round-trip domestic flights came to under $250, and all airlines offer special discounted fares.  If you plan ahead, you can fly almost anywhere in the country for under $60 round trip.

Bangladesh is a small country, so the flights are short. My first flight to Jessore in the west on Novo Air took just 30 minutes; it was 45 minutes to Chittagong on Regent and a seemingly interminable 50 minutes to Sylhet in the north on US Bangla. With short flight times, everything in the cabin happens at breakneck speed. The attendants race through the routine announcements and safety demonstration (in both Bangla and English) in a couple of minutes, including the requisite quotation from the Koran, roughly translated as “God (Allah) is almighty, without him we would not be safe.” Immediately after the seat belt sign is turned off, and almost before you have time to lower your tray table, the cabin attendants are running up and down the aisle, doling out boxes with sandwiches, cookies or cake and a bottle of water. There’s more glitz to the packaging than the food inside the box. “Celebrate Spring with the bite of true delight,” promises US Bangla on its bright yellow boxes with a floral design. “True delight” consists of a soggy bun wrapped around processed chicken, a slice of sponge cake and a mint wrapped in teeth-challenging plastic. But there’s no time to debate truth in advertising because it’s a mad rush to collect the trash before the seat belt sign goes on again and the plane begins its descent. The standard request to “sit back, relax and enjoy your flight” seems irrelevant because it’s non-stop action most of the way.

For those of us accustomed to long lines at check-in, surly gate agents and tiresome security checks, taking a domestic flight in Bangladesh is remarkably hassle-free, the security measures relaxed and the staff helpful and friendly. At the terminal entrance, your luggage goes through a scanner while you walk through the security gate. No one tells you to remove your belt or empty your pockets, so you invariably set off the alarm. The security agent points a scanner in your general direction, then waves you through. No ID is required at check-in. There’s one more scanner for carry-on, but you don’t have to remove your laptop, or take off your jacket, belt or shoes. There’s a list of prohibited carry-on items—the usual ones (handguns, knives and other sharp objects) and a few oddball items such as tape measures, tennis rackets, cricket bats, pool cues and catapults. Your one-liter water bottle?  Carry it on board. The value-sized shampoo bottle? No problem.

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I got to know the departure lounge at Dhaka’s domestic terminal pretty well. I usually headed for a corner area where there’s a sofa and two easy chairs—a standard living room suite that would not look out of place in a low-rent apartment. The fake leather is showing its age, but it’s the most comfortable place in the lounge. The thrift store ambience is enhanced by a couple of other upholstered bench chairs across the room. There’s a small tea and coffee stall and a place to buy sweets and pastries. It all feels rather homely.

You have no problem finding your gate because there are only two. Although the domestic terminal handles 50-60 flights a day, the system works well. There are a couple of monitors for departures, but the standard announcement to board is made by airline agents strolling around barking, “Regent—Chittagong” or “US Bangla—Sylhet.” If you’re dozing, they’ll wake you up to check where you’re going. The slightly surreal atmosphere continues on the bus, where the soothing pre-flight muzak track is distinctively but confusingly Celtic—soft acoustic melodies on piano, flute and, harp.

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Or perhaps you will travel by car. For no clear reason, every airline provides a couple of cars to shuttle passengers to the plane. I assumed this service was for VIPs, government officials and disabled passengers who found it difficult to board a bus. But it seemed entirely random. For the first flight to Jessore, my UNICEF colleague Yasmin and I had chauffeur service to the plane with the driver stashing our carry-on in the trunk.

After a short flight and fast onboard service, you expect your checked baggage to arrive promptly and intact. Unfortunately, although Biman Bangladesh surrendered its monopoly of domestic routes, it still handles—or rather mishandles—baggage at every airport. Delays are longest for international flights because of lack of equipment and baggage handling staff.  It’s a 45-minute flight from Kolkata to Dhaka, but one passenger told the Dhaka Tribune that it took five hours for the luggage to reach the carousel. According to a report by the airport authority, an average or more than 100 passengers a day file claims at the lost and found office; either their luggage went missing, or items were stolen. According to the Tribune, “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 or India.” Closed-circuit TV has failed to stop the pilfering by Biman Bangladesh staff.  Private airlines and consumer advocates are pressing for an open tender to allow a private company to take over baggage handling.