Bangladesh's Friendly Skies

Fly Your Own Airline. That’s the slogan of United Airways (not to be confused with the much larger US-based carrier, United Airlines), one of Bangladesh’s four private airlines.  It’s emblazoned across the aircraft and at the check-in counter at Dhaka’s domestic terminal.  I’d like to think it means the crew will 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’s probably just the product of a brainstorming session with a marketing company to make passengers feel part of the airline family and keep flying United.

I haven’t had the opportunity to test the slogan because I haven’t flown with United, but in the past week I’ve taken flights on the three other private airlines—Regent Airlines, Novo Air and US Bangla. All of them fly to domestic destinations and offer a few international flights, mostly to cities in India and Southeast Asia.  After the government airline, Biman Bangladesh, lost its monopoly of the skies, the airline industry literally took off and the competition is cutthroat. My total bill for three round-trip domestic flights came to under $250, and all the airlines offer special discounted fares.  If you plan ahead, you can fly almost anywhere in the country for under $60 round trip.

Of course, Bangladesh is a small country, so the flights are short.  My first flight to Jessore in western Bangladesh on Novo Air took just 30 minutes; it was 45 minutes to Chittagong on Regent and a seemingly interminable 50 minutes on Saturday 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. Hmm, 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 in the aisle most of the way.

Most short-haul flights are on 40-50 seater turboprops, including the French ATR 500, manufactured in Toulouse, and the Bombardier Dash 8. My return flight from Chittagong to Dhaka was on a Boeing 737, but it was the last leg of an international flight bringing migrant Bangladeshi workers from Oman in the Arabian Gulf. 

For those of us who have become 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 waves a scanner in your general direction, and then you are free to go. No ID is required at check-in. Then one more scanner for carry-on, a stamp on the boarding pass and you’re in the departure lounge.  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—all 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. 

I’ve come to know the departure lounge at Dhaka’s domestic terminal pretty well after three flights in a week. I usually head for a corner area where there’s a sofa and two easy chairs—a standard living room suite that looks as if it was salvaged from an apartment.  The fake leather is showing its age, but it’s the most comfortable place to sit.  The thrift store ambiance 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’s only one. Although the domestic terminal handles 50-60 flights a day, the system works pretty 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. Then they take your boarding card stub, and you go through the door to the bus.

Or maybe to the car. For no clear reason, every airline provides a couple of cars to shuttle passengers to the plane. I assumed that this service was for VIPs, government officials and people who find it difficult to board a bus. But it seems 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.

Besides one short delay because of low cloud cover over Jessore, all the flights were right on time. The US airlines and maybe some European ones could take a cue from Bangladesh’s private carriers for convenience, service and price.