-By Raquib Siddiqi
For the first time in its history Biman Bangladesh Airlines Limited, has a modern and dependable fleet. But there is no proper manpower to operate it. Imbalance in the composition of existing fleet is also positing problem in serving some routes.
It is irony that when Biman had efficient manpower, it had no dependable fleet. Now when it finally acquired dependable fleet, it has no efficient manpower. Along with various other important matters, the question of developing qualified and efficient manpower, never got due attention of the management.
Biman, the national flag carrier, is probably the only airline, born with over 2000 skilled and semi-skilled manpower, but no aircraft to operate. Until just recently, inadequate and unreliable fleet troubled the airline for its entire life of little more than four decades.
Biman now has made huge investment in new aircraft. With modern aircraft joining the fleet, skilled and efficient workforce is needed to ensure quality services, efficiency and profitability. But situation is just the opposite and can be termed as alarming.
The need is immediate corrective action to save the national flag carrier from fatal damage. There is no alternative but to immediately infusion of new blood and intensive training programme to elevate level of efficiency and improve standard of services.
In its fleet Biman now has four Boeing 777-300ERs with capacity of 419 each; two leased Boeing 777-200ERs with capacity of 319 each; two Airbus A310 with capacity of 221 and two leased Boeing 737-800 with capacity of 162 each.
With the delivery of four new aircraft and six more—two B737-800 and four Dreamliner B787–in future, the problem of unreliable fleet the product value is also likely to go. But with the aircraft, more liability in the form of loan payment will also be on Biman. So, unless poor management and poor manpower are replaced, the existing setup will surely ruin the opportunity.
New breed of managers
There is no doubt that a different set of managerial skills and qualities is needed if airlines are to survive in the new environment. In that environment, airline managers will be required to have new skills and qualities to face different types of priorities. Innovative workforce is needed to meet the challenges of today’s changing business environment. They help companies maximise the efficiency and productivity through wide array of services and e-capabilities.
The way vast major of Biman employees handle themselves in business environment is revealing a lot about the situation in the organisation. There is general lack of understanding everywhere.
Pathetic manpower situation
The efficiency and skill level of critical work force are now below average. In service industries like airlines, people are the greatest asset. But Biman Bangladesh Airlines is suffering from shortage of properly skilled and efficient manpower at all levels. According to a senior executive of the airline, the management level manpower situation is really bad. This is because there was no infusion of quality new blood at executive level. In the absence of direct officer level recruitment, the middle management positions are presently manned mostly by promotees. As a result quality of supervision has nose-dived.
With no direct officer level recruitment, the quality in the middle management positions—Assistant Manager, Manager and Deputy General Manager, has gradually greatly degraded. There is no required number of Deputy General Managers, General Managers and Directors. Half of the directors are on temporary duty. Following sudden departure of first ever foreign Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, the position is also being held by acting MD &CEO. At present nearly 20 senior management positions are being held by acting persons as there is no suitable manpower for permanent appointment.
It may be noted that in nearly 40 years history of Biman, only about 40 officers in four batches could be recruited. Only a handful of these 40 directly recruited officers are still with Biman.
Since its birth in January, 1972, barring insignificant exceptions, Biman has failed to recruit proper manpower mainly because of disagreement between the management and unions. In early 1980s, the management and unions concluded an agreement on the question of fresh recruitment. The two sides agreed that 35 per cent of the vacancies would be filled by direct recruitment and the rest by promotion from lower levels. Unfortunately, the management of Biman has not been able to make the recruitment as agreed.
This failure has created a serious situation for the airline. For long, the mainstay of Biman’s management was the qualified group of officers that it inherited from PIA. With all of these people going on retirement and no back up executive cadre to follow, the future of Biman does not look bright. The lack of quality and drive in all aspects of Biman’s operation is already evident.
Industry insiders consider that current Biman management as the weakest in its history. The efficiency and skill level of critical work force are also below average. So, there is no time to waste in addressing the problem concerning management, but no action taken. The huge investment in fleet modernisation face threat of going waste.
The problem of unreliable fleet has eased, with the induction of four new B777-300ERs and two leased B777-200ERs. But the current management and manpower situation in Biman is pathetic. The urgent need for professional management and qualified manpower at all levels. Sooner these come is better for Biman and the country, because poor management and poor manpower will ruin the opportunity.
The induction of new larger aircraft has increased capacity of Biman by about 25 per cent, but there remain critical imbalance. This imbalance is posing problem in serving all the existing routes. According to a senior executive the composition of current Biman fleet is not right for the requirement of schedule and route. At the moment larger aircraft dominate the fleet.
Biman is in urgent need of aircraft with 200 to 250 seating capacity. Of the two A310 with 221 capacity in the fleet, only one is now flying. The other is grounded. Moreover, according to senior executives of Biman, because of the ban on flying by European Union and Singapore, A310 aircraft will need to be grounded by the middle of 2015.
For the present requirement, Biman needs at least four aircraft of A310 size to overcome the current fleet imbalance. There is still no plan to procure such aircraft in the fleet.
Not in isolation
There is no doubt that to tackle the existing situation and put the airline on right track, Biman is in need of a person with above average professional capability as its head.
Considering situation prevailing in Biman, we strongly feel that Biman need much more than just a professional expatriate CEO. Without actions to improve situation in other critical areas– professional management, proper manpower and non-interfering unions– appointment of CEO in isolation will not help Biman to get out of the hole.
It may be recalled that when Biman was made a Public Limited Company during the rule of immediate past Caretaker Government, a package actions was planned to put Biman on right track. Modernisation of fleet, installation of professional management, appointment of professional CEO, induction of quality manpower were in the package among others.
But professional management is missing and manpower situation is very poor and interference on unions is still strong. So, what a new professional CEO even if he is very competent, can achieve in existing situation?
What has gone wrong?
Not very long ago, Biman envisaged a bright new era with new fleet, new brand image and identity and new management. After turning Biman into a Public Limited Company (PLC), during the rule of immediate past Careta-ker Government, the first Board of Directors of Biman ordered 10 aircraft-four Dreamliner B787s, four B777-200ERs and two B737s with option for equal number of aircraft, for modernisation of Biman fleet.
Efforts to attract foreign assistance to re-structure the carrier and recast management, run the airline professionally, efficiently and commercially were made. The objective was to take Biman into a new era with new generation fleet, new corporate identity including a totally redesigned aircraft livery and company logo, to revitalise the brand image better as well as to reflect Biman’s future direction.
But unfortunately, following induction of elected government in 2009, the efforts to provide– new identity, induct professional management and infuse skilled manpower– to make Biman a modern and efficient airline were abandoned. Thus the bright prospect of the new eras dimmed considerably.
There was little time to waste in addressing the problems. It is widely being felt, otherwise, the huge investment in fleet modernisation will go waste.
The fresh effort to find expatriate professional as CEO and MD is a welcome move, but a solid business plan to tackle other major problems must also be taken as soon as possible and all must work in unison and keep interest of Biman above everything.
The most important step
As we repeatedly said, just the appointment of foreign professional as CEO and MD is in no way going to ensure success of Biman, the most important thing is the efficiency of the appointed foreign professional.
There is urgent need of business plan to turn round Biman.In this regard, the management of Biman has the responsibility to provide necessary logistics support and manpower to extend all cooperation in execution of plan. Under the prevailing situation, management will be required to extend full support to turn around Biman. So, it is imperative that a solid business plan, efficient stewardship and management support must combine to make the effort successful.
We do not know how long it will take to draw the business plan and start work accordingly. But it is certain that more delay will diminish the chance of success more, as Biman is in precarious position on all count.
(Former Editor of now-defunct The Bangladesh Times, Raquib Siddiqui is a veteran journalist with specialisation in aviation and tourism)