A commercially successful airport mostly needs two things: enough passengers and sufficient infrastructure to accommodate aeroplanes taking off and landing. Six of a total 11 domestic airports in Bangladesh are now out of commercial operation, according to private airliners, thanks to the second factor.
Take for instance the British-era Ishurdi Airport in west-central district of Pabna that had regular commercial flights to and from Dhaka from 1962 to 1989, remained closed for the next 17 years, resumed operation in 2013 and closed again in mid-2014. With a running Export Processing Zone (EPZ) and the country's first nuclear power plant being constructed at the upazila, the air trip suspension now runs counterproductive with the growing aviation demand there.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (Caab) and the private airliner that wrapped Ishurdi flights in 2014, however, have different accounts as to why you still cannot fly to the industrial town. The Caab points out the passenger shortage, while the commercial airliner blames an short-length runway, inadequate fire extinguishing facilities and poor air traffic management.
The poor infrastructure vs passenger shortage debate is valid for Thakurgaon Airport, Bogura Airport, Lalmonirhat Airport, Cumilla Airport and Shamshernagar Airport that have been closed for many years. Most of the domestic airfields were constructed during the British era and saw commercial operation during the Pakistan period.
Currently, domestic airports in Cox's Bazar, Rajshahi, Jashore, Saidpur and Barisal are in commercial operation. Private airlines Novoair and US Bangla, and national flag carrier Biman operate flights from and to Dhaka.
Besides, two new private airliners – Air Astra and Fly Dhaka – are to enter the domestic aviation market this year.
Busy flight logs belie passenger shortage claim
According to private airliners, domestic flights from Dhaka to five districts have been witnessing a gradual growth in the last couple of years.
They said it was difficult to operate three flights per week to the north-western district Saidpur in 2013-14 owing to a passenger shortage. But domestic flights on the route now have reached 15 (around 30 round trips) per day.
Barisal had two Dhaka-Barisal flights a week previously, while now the number of domestic air trips is 5-6 a day.
"We have requested the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism to restart Ishurdi airport. The airport is not only important for the nuclear power plant project but also for some agro-based projects in the town," Mofizur Rahman, managing director of Novoair, told The Business Standard.
Mofizur said the Dhaka-Ishurdi route will be viable for the business.
"Similarly, Shamshernagar Airport in Sylhet has great potential due to a growing tourist stream to the region," he noted.
Shamshernagar Airport went into commercial operation in 1995. Subsequently, the Dhaka-Shamshernagar route was suspended due to passenger shortage, according to CAAB.
Currently the Air Force is using the airport for training.
Hotels and many resorts including The Palace Luxury Resort, Grand Sultan and DuSai Resort & Spa have been built for tourists in the north-eastern swathe of the country in the last one decade.
"With lush green tea estates, adjacent Sreemangal upazila has turned into a key tourist destination of Bangladesh. Clients to the ritzy hotels and resorts usually have deep pockets and they prefer air travel," Abdullah Hasan, managing director of event management farm Media Mix Communication, told TBS.
If resumed, he said Shamshernagar Airport can serve the entire tourist region. Currently, a road trip to Shamshernagar from Dhaka takes a minimum of five hours.
Meanwhile, referring to busy flight logs to Saidpur, Novoair Managing Director Mofizur Rahman also advocated resumption of Thakurgaon Airport.
Aviation expert Kazi Wahidul Alam said private airliners will certainly operate flights if the closed domestic airports could be reopened as the traffic pressure on roads is growing everyday.
"There are passengers, and they are ready to pay for air trips. We first need the airfields back in business," he commented.
Long road trips don't go with rapid industrialisation
Cumilla Airport was in commercial operation until 1976. It was reopened in 1994 but shut in two weeks because there were not enough passengers.
But local businessmen say the aviation demand has changed with rapid industrialisation in the region. There is an EPZ in the district, but foreign investors cannot travel to it from the capital easily.
"When Cumilla Airport suspended flights in the 90s, there was no such thing as a traffic jam. But now you can't reach Cumilla from Dhaka by road even in three hours. A flight offers only a 25-minute trip to Cumilla," Kamrul Islam, general manager (Public Relations) of US Bangla Airlines, told TBS.
He said resumption of Cumilla Airport can also better connect Chandpur and Feni region to Dhaka.
Kamrul said planes with 17-18 seats could be put in commercial operation in Dhaka-Bogura and Dhaka-Thakurgaon routes so that a flight with 10-11 passengers can operate without loss.
He said, "Shamshernagar airstrip is also ready. After minor facility development, I think it also can resume services."
The US Bangla official said Ishurdi Airport should be resumed immediately, as the EPZ has already received a $170 million investment.
"Foreign buyers are visiting the EPZ frequently. Besides, other industries and tourism are booming in Ishurdi centring the nuke plant. People are facing troubles as the airport is closed," ABM Fazlur Rahman, director of the Pabna Chamber of Commerce and Industries, told TBS.
Govt's resumption plan may take time
Mahbub Ali, state minister for civil aviation and tourism, told the House in November last year that the government has a plan to reopen Ishurdi Airport after repair and renovation. He updated the parliament about land acquisition in this regard.
Contacted, Air Commodore Sadikur Rahman Chowdhury, member (Operations & Planning) of the CAAB, said the current airstrip of Bogura Airport is not suitable for larger aircraft, while Lalmonirhat Airport will be used for the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Aviation and Aerospace University.
"Ishurdi Airport needs a complete makeover to accommodate larger aircrafts. The airfield is only eight kilometres away from the nuclear plant, which means aircrafts will be facing a no-fly restriction."
"Shamshernagar too needs location change, which means land acquisition leading to a heavy investment. We should conduct market research first to assess the viability," he added.