When international flights resumed at the end of 2020 following pandemic-induced suspensions, migrants – who had been unable to travel to their destination countries mostly in the Middle East – heaved a sigh of relief.
The comfort, however, was temporary. Booking plane tickets was not easy back then as permissions from host countries and Covid negative reports were required.
After hours of waiting in long queues at airlines sales offices, passengers saw that airfare had almost doubled or even tripled in some instances.
Now, two years later, airfares have come down significantly, but are still well above the pre-pandemic rates on almost all the routes travelled most by remittance earners.
For instance, the airfare for Dhaka-Kuwait was between Tk39,000 and Tk42,000 before the pandemic, but it reached Tk80,000-90,000 during the peak of Covid-19 outbreak.
Currently, the fare has remained between Tk55,000 and Tk58,000, with no sign of decreasing.
The same is seen for the Dhaka-Dubai and Dhaka-Muscat routes, both having seen a rise in ticket prices during the pandemic followed by a slight dip, but still remain above the pre-pandemic levels.
The Dhaka-Doha route is the only one where the fare climbed down to the pre-pandemic level.
The worst case, however, has been for passengers and migrants travelling to Saudi Arabia.
While ticket prices for Oman, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, decreased from the pandemic highs, no such respite has been there for Saudi-bound passengers, who make up a bulk of Bangladesh's migrants.
Interestingly, fares for longer-route flights have come down almost to their levels before the pandemic. Even the increases on European and North American routes were not as much as those to the Middle Eastern destinations, according to rates collected from sales and travel agents.
A ticket of Singapore Airlines for a 12-hour flight from Dhaka to Melbourne was sold for Tk56,000 on Sunday, which was around Tk48,000 before pandemic, while a ticket for Jeddah or Riyadh, roughly a five-hour journey, costs Tk70,000-Tk80,000.
Khaled Saifullah flew from Chattogram to Jeddah on Sunday by a Bangladesh Biman flight paying Tk77,000.
Around 3.22 lakh Bangladeshis have gone abroad in the first three months of this year, of whom 64% were employed in Saudi Arabia.
Travel agents said the airfare was still high for Saudi Arabia as people have been going to the country to perform Umrah, pushing up the demand and thus price for tickets.
"A ticket for Riyadh-bound flights would cost Tk30,000-36,000 during the pre-pandemic times, but after travel restrictions were lifted, the price reached Tk90,000. Now it has fallen to Tk70,000," said Mahmudul Haque Piaru, proprietor of travel agency Haque International.
Airfare to Riyadh is expected to fall after the Umrah travel pressure eases.
"The Dhaka-Dubai ticket price has dropped to Tk40,000, which was Tk70,000-80,000 amid the Covid-19 induced flight shortages. Before the pandemic, the airfare was Tk36,000," he added.
He mentioned that the number of flights had increased in recent months which also played a role in reining in ticket prices.
"For example, Bangladesh Biman operated five flights a day to Saudi Arabia last month. But now, it operates seven flights daily. The Saudi airlines is also operating seven flights every day now," he added.
"The Umrah season will end after Ramadan. We hope that the airfare on Saudi Arabian routes will decline like it has for other Middle Eastern destinations," said Mohammad Amjad Hossain, manager, Shanta Travels and Tours.
Although Umrah can be performed all year round, most Umrah pilgrims from Bangladesh go to Saudi Arabia during November-April, according to the Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh.
Typically, around 1 lakh pilgrims perform Umrah in Ramadan.
Almost 43% of the pilgrims visit Saudi Arabia during the Islamic months of Rajab, Shaban and Ramadan, reports TRT World.
Airfares to Middle Eastern routes started to edge up at the end of 2020 as air travel resumed after months of Covid-led suspension.
All local and foreign airlines which operate international flights on the routes doubled or tripled ticket prices while airfare for other South Asian countries remained unchanged, according to travel agents.
The airline authorities have linked a lower number of flights, travel restrictions, poor number of return-ticket holders, thin movement of tourists, and obligation for maintaining standard operating procedures to an increase in their operating costs, eventually causing a hike in ticket prices.
The major airlines which operate flights to Middle Eastern destinations are Biman Bangladesh Airlines, Emirates, Fly Dubai, Air Arabia, Oman Air, US Bangla Airlines, Salam Air etc.
Since the first week of April, airfare fell to Tk38,000-Tk58,000 in most of the Middle Eastern destinations except Saudi Arabia.
Jet fuel price hike impacts domestic airfare
Before the start of the pandemic, airfare from Dhaka to Jashore was Tk2,700. The price of the same ticket has now gone up to Tk5,000.
Industry insiders say this was the result of rising jet fuel prices.
In the last one and a half years, the price of jet fuel has gone up by 117%, ratcheting up the cost pressure on airlines who in turn increased ticket prices.
Jet fuel price began to rise in October 2020. The price per litre that month was Tk46. By April 6, the price reached Tk100 per litre after another Tk13 increase was announced.
In the span of 18 months, the price of jet fuel had increased by Tk54.
According to the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC), jet fuel prices have risen 14 times in the last 18 months. In the last three months, it rose by Tk25.
"Rising fuel prices have to be adjusted for by increasing ticket prices. Due to the increase in the price of jet fuel, the fare on each domestic route has increased by Tk300-400, "said Md Kamrul Islam, spokesperson of US-Bangla Airlines.
"The price of jet fuel had risen because of the war. But the price of non-stop jet fuel has gone up in the country for the last 18 months. The price of jet fuel skyrocketed, even when everything was closed during the Covid-19 pandemic," he added.
Experts in the aviation sector say that the increase in prices is having the biggest impact on domestic destinations of the country. Domestic airlines will not be able to compete with foreign airlines and the impact of rising fuel prices will ultimately fall on the passengers.
Mesbahul Islam, head of sales and marketing, Novo Air, told TBS, that ticket prices had rose further ahead of Eid due to huge demand.
"The airfare on certain routes used to cost Tk5,100, but is around Tk6,000-8,000," he said.
About 80% of air tickets for Eid on the domestic routes have already been sold out.