As Bangladesh aspires to be a regional aviation hub through robust air connectivity utilising its potential emanating from its geographic location, sector insiders think it is not an impossible dream but requires massive investment and strategic planning.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stressed the need for preparing a roadmap aimed at making Bangladesh an aviation hub in the region.
At the first-ever Bangladesh Aviation Summit in March this year, she said her government has undertaken several measures in the last decade, including a number of projects to upgrade airports, airport security and ground handling to support the development of an aviation hub.
The country is currently implementing various airport development projects, worth around Tk32,605 crore, including the third terminal at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, Dhaka.
When India is preparing itself to become an international aviation hub by strengthening airport infrastructure and increasing the number of fleets, industry insiders here think Bangladesh lags far behind its neighbour in all indicators.
The Indian government is already in advanced negotiations with a few Indian carriers and an airport to pursue its goal of creating a hub.
Indian Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia recently praised Air India, Vistara, SpiceJet and other Indian carriers for ordering more wide-bodied aircraft that would enable them to undertake flights above eight hours.
But Bangladeshi airlines currently have only 45 aircraft and will have 15 more at best this year, according to the fleet expansion plan.
Besides, India is just one airport short of doubling its airport capacity to 148 from just 74 in FY2013-14, Bangladesh is stagnant with its eight operational airports in the last decade.
The country could not even reopen the six closed domestic airports that are not in commercial operation due to the insufficient infrastructure for takeoff and landing of aeroplanes.
These airfields – located in Ishwardi, Shamshernagar, Thakurgaon, Bogura, Lalmonirhat and Cumilla – were constructed in the British era and saw commercial operations during the Pakistan period.
Recently, the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) decided to stop the construction of the Khan Jahan Ali Airport in Bagerhat considering that it would not be profitable, about two decades after undertaking the project.
Besides, the process of upgrading the Saidpur Airport to an international one is currently suspended due to the financial situation though the land acquisition has already started, according to CAAB sources.
"You need to have strategic planning to make your station a hub," Kazi Wahidul Alam, former board member of Biman Bangladesh Airlines, and the editor of the travel magazine Bangladesh Monitor, told The Business Standard.
"We do not know how many aircraft Biman will run next year. We don't have any fleet planning, we're buying aircraft one or two at a time when we can, whereas others are buying hundreds of planes," he said.
"We will never become a hub with this growth plan. In fact, we are not ready," Wahidul Alam said, adding, "We don't have the kind of quality, planning and financial ability. We need to be ready. You can't become a hub only with a third terminal. A third terminal will enhance passenger comfort but not operational facilities."
Stating that there should be an "open-air sky policy", he opined that if any country's airline wants to operate flights here, they should be given the opportunity. For example, Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are now aviation hubs, where there is no restriction on the flight operations of any airline in those hubs.
"We control the frequency, arrival and departure of foreign airlines to protect our national carrier here. We don't want to let everyone come," he added.
Identifying funding as a key challenge to becoming an aviation hub, CAAB Chairman Air-Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman said, "Due to Covid-19, CAAB could not start the development work at Saidpur airport. It would require Tk5,000 crore which the government cannot afford right now. So the priority has been shifted elsewhere."
"We are also aiming to build the capacity of Chattogram Airport. Even to make Cox's Bazar Airport international, CAAB requires a huge amount of money which is a challenge to manage," he added.
He further mentioned CAAB is planning to construct another runway at Dhaka Airport. However, there is not enough land to make multiple runways at the airport, which otherwise is very important to accommodate more flights.
He said that if we get all the support including the huge investment through formulating a strategic plan, it is quite possible to make Bangladesh an aviation hub within five years.
An airline hub or hub airport is the name given to the airport that airlines use outside their headquarters. The hub is also used as a term that expresses the connectivity of an airport to other airports. And the more space an airport provides access to, the higher the flight frequency is and the greater the hub.
Today, just like the airlines, airports are also competing among themselves. That's why they increase the number of connections and compete to become better hub.
"Hub simply means more air connectivity. And if we can ensure that, the movement of domestic and foreign airlines will increase and we will get a lot of revenue," ATM Nazrul Islam, an aviation expert and also the managing director of United Airways, told The Business Standard.
"We are not yet on the right track to become a hub. But we can prepare. Just as it has to be prepared politically, the local airlines have to prepare to increase their strength," he added.
Currently, local airlines occupy only 25% of the total market share while the rest belongs to the 32 foreign carriers operating in Bangladesh.
Nazrul Islam said that there is a need for a sound policy. "Compared to other countries, the price of our aviation fuel is high. Our ground handling charges and operating costs are high. We cannot bring in more foreign airlines with these expenses."
CAAB Chairman Mafidur Rahman said all South Asian countries can be reached within two hours from Bangladesh.
Besides, any country in Asia can be reached in four hours and all European countries in about six hours. Hence, Bangladesh has the potential to become an aviation hub, according to CAAB Chairman.
13 million of the total 170 million population of Bangladesh reside abroad while 2 lakh 50 thousand foreigners stay in the country. These segments can be great sources of passengers. "Currently, we handle 80 lakh passengers a year. If we can grab the aforementioned diaspora, we can increase the passenger number to 2 crores," claimed CAAB Chairman.
Bangladesh's airports handled 90.63 lakh international passengers last year, up 133% from 38.83 lakh in 2021, according to CAAB. "This is not a bad number, considering that the coronavirus pandemic came in the way and reduced air travel greatly. However, after the crisis, the country quickly regained its pace to recovery," CAAB Chairman noted.
The country's total cargo handling capacity is 285 thousand metric tons per year.
In 2019, Bangladesh carried 140 thousand metric tons of cargo, 221 thousand metric tons in 2020 and 261 thousand metric tons in 2021, near its full capacity.
After the establishment of Terminal 3 at Dhaka Airport, the country will be able to increase the cargo capacity three times to almost 9,000 metric tons a year, according to the CAAB assessment.
The upgradation work of eight commercial airports involves constructing a third terminal at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (HSIA), laying the country's longest runway in Cox's Bazar, expanding and strengthening the runways at six airports, increasing the cargo handling capacities, and improving basic amenities.
The eight airports were being upgraded under 15 projects.
"If Singapore and Dubai, countries with a very small population, can become the aviation hub of the world in five decades from a very backward background, why can't Bangladesh become a regional hub with a population of 170 million and an advantageous geographical position in East, Southeast Asia and South Asia," Mofizur Rahman, general secretary of Aviation Operators' Association Bangladesh (AOAB) and MD of Novo Air, told TBS.
Which routes would connect if Bangladesh becomes a hub?
US-Bangla Airline CEO Captain Lutfor Rahman told TBS, "When I say regional hub, it is basically short haul distance. Short haul is considered up to around four to six hours. So it falls within short haul up to six hours distance from Dhaka."
For example, he said, "There is a traffic flow between Hanoi and Dhaka. And there is a Dhaka-Jeddah traffic flow. But no one in Vietnam or Saudi Arabia wants to operate a full-fledged direct flight between Hanoi and Jeddah. Because it is not viable."
"But whenever I'm here as a hub I'm able to leverage that network. That means I can finish a distance in four hours. So this opportunity is open for us," he added.
Aviation expert Nazrul Islam believes that if Saidpur Airport can be converted into an international airport, it can connect at least four countries.
According to airport information, it takes 30 to 50 minutes by air to go from Saidpur to the nearest airports of Nepal, Bhutan and seven states of India's Northeast known as Seven Sisters.
In February 2020, Nepal's Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali and Bhutan's Economic Affairs Secretary Karma Tshering discussed the utilisation of Saidpur Airport during their visit to Bangladesh in 2022.
US-Bangla Airline CEO Captain Lutfor Rahman said, "From our position, the idea of a hub is not unreasonable. With proper planning, we can become a regional hub at least within three years."