The recent US-Bangla Airlines crash in Kathmandu, Nepal has revitalized the subject of aircraft safety in Bangladesh. Although mishaps are fairly common, no other aircraft accident has been as lethal or had as much impact as the Nepal crash.
Passengers on domestic flights in Bangladesh are intimately familiar with delays caused by technical or mechanical problems of the aircraft. For some passengers, emergency landings are part and parcel of their flights.
In October 2017, a Biman Bangladesh Airlines’ Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 aircraft – same as the one which crashed in Nepal – took off from Saidpur airport for Dhaka. It had to make an emergency landing because one of the wheels fell off after the plane took to the air. There were no casualties among the 71 onboard.
In late 2016, Biman suffered two incidents which, if conditions were unfavourable, could have been catastrophic. In December, a Boeing-737 from Oman to Chittagong had a ruptured tire during take-off, which was only discovered once the aircraft was in the air. The plane made two passes over Dhaka airport to let engineers survey the damage and assess its chances of landing without putting too much stress on the aircraft. The emergency landing was successful and nobody was injured.
The incident preceding it could have seen a wildly different Bangladesh had it gone through. A Boeing 777 carrying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her retinue to Hungary experienced a rapid fall in fuel pressure, prompting the pilot to make an emergency landing in Turkmenistan.
A series of probe reports followed, which saw nine Biman Bangladesh employees arrested for negligence of duty.
US-Bangla Airlines has multiple records of engine failures among other technical malfunctions which have forced emergency landings, even on grass.
The question arises: how safe are the everyday domestic flights in Bangladesh?
According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB), on average a million people and 150,000 tons of cargo are carried by domestic flights every year.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines, US-Bangla Airlines, Regent Airlines and NOVOAIR operate dozens of flights every day out of the seven airports in Bangladesh.
Many passengers claimed the airlines and concerned authorities are failing to ensure safety.
Generally, a pilot and first officer or co-pilot fly for four sectors (two round-trips). But it is a common practice among private airlines to have most pilots cover six sectors.
Captain Abid Sultan, pilot of the crashed US-Bangla aircraft, had flown four sectors before the Kathmandu trip.
A pilot’s work hours are eight hours a day, but most pilots work overtime because private airlines lack skilled crew.
There are allegations of private airlines not granting leave as per the job policy.
One pilot, on condition of anonymity, complained: “US-Bangla does not even grant the 21 days of annual leave. We have raised the matter several times, but they continuously disregarded our protests.”
Concerns have been raised about airlines management forcing pilots to fly even when circumstances recommend otherwise.
A pilot is more susceptible to make human errors during flight if s/he is exhausted.
In spite of the fact that human error accounts for over half of all aviation accidents, neither the government nor the CAAB authorities intervened despite the airlines’ persistence in overexerting the pilots.
Pilots are afraid to go public with allegations out of fear of getting blacklisted. But while remaining anonymous, they maintain their accusation that for the airlines profits are the bigger concern.
Horrifying violations of regulations
A correspondence between two pilots read: “The safety culture or truly speaking the ‘lack of it’ in private sector is simply outrageous!”
It is no less than terrifying to hear of a sinister understanding between private airlines and CAAB which involves flights taking off without due inspection, fitness examinations, and other crucial regulations by government gatekeepers.
But, Kamrul Islam, general manager US-Bangla Airlines, said: “US-Bangla has provided consistently excellent service to everyone before the accident. Now that there is an incident, everyone is digging up problems. This is just the nature of Bangladeshi people.”
CAAB Chairman Air-Vice Marshal M Naim Hassan said there are some minor violations, but did not agree with the allegations of widespread violations in civil aviation.