Biman Bangladesh Airlines has already cancelled 19 Hajj flights due to lack of pilgrims, which has become a common phenomenon in the recent years.
The national flag carrier and the Hajj agencies have been blaming each other for the flight cancellations for years. After speaking with both the parties, the Dhaka Tribune understands that both of them are responsible for the situation.
There are a few reasons behind the lack of Hajj pilgrims using Biman’s services: no advance payment for Biman ticket booking, delay in pilgrims’ visa processing and renting of houses for pilgrims.
Saudi Airlines has a system of paying 50% of fair in advance, which is non-refundable. But Biman booking is completely free, which allows the agencies to cancel bookings without incurring any loss.
The agencies cancel booking when they are not ready with pilgrims’ visas and rented houses. Such delays are allegedly intentional in many cases as late departure of pilgrims ensures their shorter stay in Saudi Arabia and thus helps the agencies reduce the cost significantly and maximise the profit. In some cases, the government’s Hajj office is blamed for delay in visa processing.
Besides, the duration of Biman Hajj package is minimum 42 days and it means a pilgrim cannot return earlier, while the Saudi Airlines’ Hajj package offers a minimum duration of 25 days.
As the longer stay increases the cost, among other issues, many agencies prefer Saudi Airlines to Biman.
Furthermore, there are allegations that Biman officials and a limited number of travel agencies have established a syndicate on the sale of Biman Hajj tickets, making the airlines unable to explore passengers independently. In such case, Biman has no other options if its travel agencies cancel any booking.
Biman is reportedly unwilling to impose advance booking payment to save these travel agencies’ business.
“Saudi Airlines does not need to cancel flights like Biman as they have no dedicated Hajj flights,” said Mosaddique Ahmed, managing director and CEO of Biman, in reply to a question.
Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh (Haab) Executive Member Tajul Islam blamed Biman for “allowing only a few agencies.”
“They should allow all agencies who process Hajj travelling. But they do not follow the rules, which is unfortunate,” he added. Biman CEO Mosaddique Ahmed said they allowed over 100 agencies.
Tajul Islam thinks advance payment system will help Biman with its flight bookings.
Aviation expert Kazi Wahidul Alam said the national carrier must stop advance ticket booking without money, otherwise the flight cancellation would not be stopped.
Jahirul Kabir Chowdhury, joint secretary general of Haab, alleged that some officials of the national carrier were involved with the ticket business as well.
He said they also prefer Saudi Airlines because of the 25-day package compared to Biman’s 42-day package.
“Better package offers can help Biman return to business,” he added.
This year Biman is supposed to carry 63,600 pilgrims. As of now, Biman has carried a total of 24,115 pilgrims to Jeddah.