Dhaka-Guangzhou route: Biman flouts rules right from take-off

Atab, Baira threaten to boycott Biman, TIB demands probe

State-run Biman Bangladesh Airlines has caused new controversy by flouting rules to help its favorite travel agency sell tickets for its first flight on the Dhaka-Guangzhou route that took off on August 18.

The scam has created massive controversy in the industry and exposed an influential syndicate involved in ticket price manipulation, with leaders of travel agents and recruiting agencies demanding the expulsion and arrest of Biman officials for taking financial benefits from Takeoff Travels. 

They have alleged that the same syndicate of the national carrier had increased the price of Middle East-bound tickets to over Tk1,00,000 from Tk35,000 last year, but they were not made accountable for the offence.

The much-awaited flight, a 300-seater Boeing-777, departed from Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport on August 18 with 177 passengers despite 229 passengers having booked their tickets after full payment via Takeoff Travels.

The agent kept its share, a standard commission of 7%, before transferring the amount earned from selling 175 tickets to Biman. Then the passengers were issued their tickets or confirmation by Biman officials. However, 20 tickets were unsold.

Biman spokesperson Tahera Khondoker said that all the tickets for the departure flight had been issued by them. 

Before Biman entered the race, the local private company US Bangla Airlines and two Chinese airliners used to operate flights on the route. 

US Bangla has already got its six months tickets booked in advance. 

On the other hand, the agency – affiliated with US Bangla Group – gave promotional offers with Biman tickets for this route on WeChat on August 8 and on its Facebook page on August 10, the day Biman disclosed the date of the maiden flight.

On August 16, Biman issued a statement saying that passengers can purchase tickets for the first departure flight on the Guangzhou route from any sales center of Biman and the arrival tickets from Biman's website www.biman-airlines.com and Biman's authorized travel agencies. 

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The number of such ticketing agents is no less than 500, according to the association.

As per Biman’s ticket booking policy and International Air Transport Association (IATA) rules, Biman cannot allow a single agent to sell its tickets, especially when it is the maiden flight. Moreover, allowing an agency unilaterally and unofficially to sell tickets means selling tickets on the black market.

Several officials of Biman’s Marketing and Sales Directorate (MSD) have stated that Takeoff Travels got the job -- illegally -- upon a verbal agreement with some top officials of the department on sharing a commission of 7% for every ticket. Half of the amount was pocketed by the Biman officials in the syndicate.

Biman has fixed economy class tickets at $1,600, $1,800 and $2,000 and $3,500 and $3,800 for business class. For the arrival flight, the price has been set at Tk42,521 for economy class and Tk1,11,324 for business class.

Takeoff Travels started operations in 2016 as one of the three ticketing agencies affiliated with the US Bangla Group. The two others are Triplover and Travel Gem, according to Takeoff Travels Manager Ataharul Islam.

The group’s spokesperson Kamrul Islam disowned Takeoff Travels when contacted by Dhaka Tribune. “It is not owned by the US Bangla Group. But the agency has permission to sell our airline tickets.”

Issue of collusion

While everyone is censuring the dishonest officials of Biman and Takeoff Travels for bypassing rules, the men in question have remained reluctant about taking corrective steps.

“We have an agreement with Biman. We were permitted to sell Biman’s Guangzhou route tickets around 200 out of 300 tickets,” Ataharul Islam told Dhaka Tribune.

“As many as 165 Chinese nationals and 10 Bangladeshis confirmed their one-way ticket from us. Biman did not have any passengers on this route,” he boasted. 

Mohammad Salahuddin, general manager of Biman’s MSD, admitted that Biman had allowed Takeoff Travels to sell the tickets for the maiden flight.

“Not only Takeoff Travels but some other agencies also sold Biman’s tickets after paying us cash in hand. Our Motijheel district office is responsible for this.

“The name of the agency will not be written on a passenger’s ticket. So we did not consider which agency was selling our tickets. Our job is to sell tickets and earn money,” he told Dhaka Tribune last week.

Outrage against favoritism

Association of Travel Agents of Bangladesh (Atab) Secretary General Abdus Salam Aref said that Biman cannot enter into any unequal or illegal agreement to promote black-marketing.

“If the Biman authorities do not take any stern action this time, the country’s ticketing agencies will stop selling its tickets on all routes.

“It is unacceptable. Biman cannot sell tickets through an agency after announcing officially that it will do it on its own due to Covid-related issues. It should be investigated,” Aref told Dhaka Tribune.

Another Atab leader, seeking anonymity,  said GM Salahuddin is in control of the ticketing syndicate as he has been the head of Biman's MSD for over seven years. 

Several officials at Biman’s MSD told Dhaka Tribune on condition of anonymity that the whole procedure should be investigated by the ministry and the Parliamentary Standing Committee concerned. 

Upon knowing about such irregularities, a senior official at the ministry said that it was very unfortunate as the government had promised to revive Biman’s domestic and international aviation markets under the leadership of the new CEO. 

Asking not to be named, the official said, the Biman staff involved in the ticket black-marketing in collusion with some travel agencies have been depriving the national carrier of huge revenues for personal gains.

In recent years, several top officials of Biman were found involved in irregularities and plundering money in the name of different schemes that lack importance and merit, including flawed appointments, attempts to lease aircraft to operate Hajj flights, and the announcement of operating direct flights on the Dhaka-Toronto route. 

“The same syndicate was involved in manipulation and charging extra fare for the Middle East-bound Biman tickets last year,” the official concluded with the hope that the ministry would take stricter action following an investigation.

Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), termed the allegations against Biman’s marketing chief of a very grave nature. 

“These are instances of abuse of power for personal gains, fraud and syndicated control and damage of the national flag carrier’s business potential as well as harassment and deprivation of Biman’s customers of the desired level of service," he told Dhaka Tribune.

He also demanded a thorough inquiry and establishing exemplary accountability to salvage whatever little remains of Biman’s credibility.

On Monday, Biman announced that the second flight will take off from Dhaka at 11am on September 15. The tickets will be available at its domestic and foreign sales centres on a first-come, first-served basis. The scope of online purchase is available only for the return flight.

Authorities on alert

Biman’s new CEO and Managing Director Zahid Hossain said they could not open online tickets due to the Covid travel advisory issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in case of departures from Dhaka. 

“No travel agency was allowed to sell tickets for the first departure flight,” he told Dhaka Tribune when contacted.

The Biman CEO said that he did not know about Takeoff Travels selling the tickets by a flouting of rules, and that the marketing department must be aware of the matter as it is responsible for the ticket issue.

State Minister for Civil Aviation and Tourism Mahbub Ali said he would look into the matter. “There is no chance for anyone allowing a single agency to sell Biman tickets,” he told Dhaka Tribune last week.