The Civil Aviation Authority, Bangladesh (CAAB) is the regulatory body responsible for all aviation-related activities in Bangladesh. It operates under the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism. There are nine airports (three international and six domestic), operated by the CAAB that is headquartered in Kurmitola, Dhaka. Our Regional Office in Bangkok recently interviewed Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman, Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh. Excerpts from this interview are shared below.
Q: Considering the current COVID-19 impact on aviation, what do you think are the biggest challenges the aviation industry will face in the next five years? How do you see the aviation industry changing? What has been the impact on the Bangladesh CAAB?
A: Because of COVID-19, we observed a significant downturn in the aviation industry over the last two years. Many airlines were forced to end their operations, many had to lay off their employees, some went into bankruptcy. Aviation manufacturing companies, leasing companies, including airports, have experienced the worst situation ever. We experienced several downturns in the civil aviation sector over the last 20 years because of different global crises. I can recall the SARS in 2002, the global economic crisis in 2008, avian flu in 2013, but the aviation industry did not experience such devastation as this in previous years.
Aviation stakeholders will face many challenges as they carry out aviation activities in the next few years. In the case of airport operations, airport operators will have to maintain special health and security protocols for their passengers. Shortages of health and screening equipment, lack of airport staff, and ensuring there is a continuous supply of personal protection equipment will be challenges for airport operators worldwide. Airlines must adapt to the evolving health regulations imposed by different countries and adapt the services they provide their customers. ‘Uncertainty’ will continue in the case of scheduled flights because of border closure measures implemented by some countries, and due to the special health protocols of destination countries. Training and licensing of aviation professionals will be another challenge in the upcoming years because aviation professionals, particularly airmen, have to maintain continuous training to meet regulatory requirements.
Aircraft manufacturers are facing difficulties with the aircraft that are in production. Airlines are struggling with their existing fleet because of high maintenance and operational costs. Many have already canceled their manufacturing orders. Operators may have to maintain flights with refurbished aircraft or continue with their old fleet. Though in this context, innovative technologies must be incorporated to meet the public health issues and related challenges. Passengers are likely to become accustomed to the situation over time and travel will soon gain momentum.
Initially, the abrupt situation downturned air transport throughout the world. This has been gradually improving as Member States began adapting innovative ideas and following up with new technological advances. At the same time, e-commerce through air cargo has been increasing in most countries. However, the revival of the existing situation, especially in passenger transport, needs to be further increased. Air transport is the fastest means of travel and is an important contributor to global economies. Another concern is the increment of airfare in some States. Some airlines stopped their operations on some routes which created extra pressure on other airlines, with less competition.
With the aviation sector growing in Bangladesh, we were in an advantageous opportunity to lead CAPSCA-AP. We had taken proactive measures before, and just after the pandemic hit the country. Although domestic and international scheduled passenger flights to and from Bangladesh were suspended for a few weeks in 2020, we resumed passenger flights by introducing strict precautionary measures at airports. Like other countries around the world, we started to allow airlines to carry cargo in passenger cabins so that they could survive during the pandemic. We also imposed new health regulations for airlines, operators and airports to keep COVID infections under control. All of these health measures helped passengers to gain confidence in air travel.
By the end of 2021, we observed that domestic flights returned fully while international flights resumed by more than 60%. Huge demand is being observed in Middle Eastern destinations as a considerable number of Bangladeshi passengers tried to move to those destinations for availing new job opportunities. This flow helped the airlines to recapture the passenger market. We could not allow the airlines to operate with full frequencies and full seat capacity as they operated in pre-pandemic situations in order to maintain health protocols at airports. The present Government of Bangladesh has already taken a considerable number of steps to meet the expeditious growth of air transportation. Upgrading the airports to include the construction of a new international terminal got highest priority from the Government despite being in a pandemic. We are developing our airports with more space and advanced technologies to handle more aircraft and passengers over the next couple of years. Under the competent leadership of our Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the aviation sector in Bangladesh has received the highest consideration and momentum. We are trying our best to meet the growing demand of aviation ensuring a Safe and Secure air transportation system in Bangladesh.
Q: As the current Chairperson of CAPSCA Asia/Pacific, could you share the experiences and challenges with regard to the implementation of public Health corridors/ Safe Travel lanes in Asia/ Pacific Region during the past year?
A: As the Chair of CAPSCA-AP, I would like to highlight the last regional physical forum held in Dhaka in 2019. To uphold aviation public health issues, the Eleventh Meeting of the Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation Asia Pacific was a good simulation for our aviation professionals as well as the stakeholders. This regional platform gave us the opportunity to share knowledge and experience in aviation public health management just before the pandemic hit the world.
It is evident that all the Member States have already established and implemented the health protocols as precautionary measures. We could not implement fully harmonized health protocols throughout the region. Some Member States are also facing challenges in integration with other national or governmental agencies onboard despite where National Air Transport Facilitation Committees are established. During the last two years of the pandemic, we observed discrimination in different health protocols in this region. For example, some countries tried to incentivize airlines to continue their operations, some imposed restrictions, some closed their borders, few countries introduced punitive type regulations against any violation of imposed restrictions. As a result of these variations, passengers were frustrated and a wide number of passengers lost interest in traveling by air, though it appears that passengers have now regained confidence and trust.
While the latest technologies helped prevent the escalation of health risks, there were devices that were not a success and there were some that brought benefits that were not recognized by the WHO. Some innovative devices like touchless sanitation and health screening helped substantially the airport management system.
Meanwhile, RT PCR testing, vaccination, and quarantine protocol are of paramount importance to all States while facing the pandemic. Some countries have established safe corridors aiming to launch commercial passenger flights in a limited scale despite many borders being closed.
Throughout the pandemic, the ICAO Secretariat played a vital role by issuing State letters on which CAPSCA worked with all its stakeholders and partners to bring innovative, sustainable, and timely solutions for Member States to solve all kinds of aviation public health-related issues.
It is evident that the establishment of harmonized health protocol throughout the region is the major objective of CAPSCA-AP. In this case, Aviation Public Health Corridors will continue to play a vital role.
Q: As the CAPSCA Global Symposium will be held in March 2022, what should be the priorities of CAPSCA? How can CAPSCA balance between public health concerns and the development and progress of aviation industry? How should the CAPSCA program framework be strengthened to build resilience against similar events in the future?
A: CAPSCA should have its own mechanism for implementing further harmonization in health protocols. This includes quarantine rules, RT PCR testing and vaccination requirements, etc. In line with the broad guidelines of WHO, CAPSCA should continue the dialogue among the health and other administrative authorities, such as health departments, border control, aviation agencies, etc. so that everyone can walk at the same pace within the region. Every Member State should be taken onboard to build resilience against similar crises in the future. CAPSCA should continuously provide Member States with updated information including training, workshop, seminar, etc. Lastly, we want a safe, secure, and sustainable restart and recovery of the global aviation sector through a harmonized approach where aviation leaders will have the same voice with innovative solutions for the revival of smooth air transport operations.