Airlines of South Asia – Part 3

Pakistan and Bangladesh

With the creation of Pakistan in 1947 came a conundrum. The newly formed nation was physically split into two parts, the larger western portion comprising the Sindh, North West frontier province, Punjab and Baluchistan. This was separated from the eastern portion, which was primarily the former British Indian province of East Bengal, by a huge swath of Indian territory.

Orient Airways, which had been formed in 1946 by the Merza brothers, was the only Muslim-owned airline in existence at the time, and in 1947 the owners moved it from its original base in Calcutta (now Kolkata, capital of the Indian state of West Bengal) to Karachi in newly formed Pakistan. The airline performed a vital role in connecting the two far-flung sections of the new nation, operating many relief flights soon after the traumatic circumstances of Pakistan’s birth.

In 1955, Pakistan nationalized the airline sector and Orient Airways was merged with other smaller outfits, to form Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). An early operator of the Lockheed 1049 Super Constellation, PIA was the second airline in Asia to introduce jet aircraft with a leased Boeing 707 entering service in 1960.

PIA would be a pioneer in many ways, notably as one of the first airlines to enter the now thriving “Hajj charter” business, flying Muslim pilgrims from many Asian and African ports to Jeddah for the annual pilgrimage. It also became the first non Communist airline to fly to mainland China, connecting Dhaka (formerly Dacca) in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to Canton (now Guangzhou) and Shanghai in 1964.

In 1966, PIA introduced the British built Hawker Siddeley HS 121 Trident aircraft, a three engine jet, to its fleet. This was a controversial decision, with many allegations of misconduct relating to its choice over the rival American Boeing 727, which was a more capable aircraft in many ways. However, it was to prove a crucial ‘win’ for the manufacturer.

The Trident was soon on PIA’s China routes and, impressed by the type’s technology, the Communist Chinese government ordered 35 of the type, making Air China the second largest Trident customer after British European Airways (BEA).

The Seventies were to be a golden age for PIA under the capable leadership of Enver Jamall, as it introduced the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (feature image) in 1972 and the Boeing 747 in 1976. Interestingly, at one time Jamall was the head of PIA while two of his former colleagues from Tata Airlines, Messrs Mehta and Appuswamy, were managing directors of Indian Airlines and Air India, respectively. All three had learned their business under JRD Tata, and were able to cooperate closely despite the political strife between Pakistan and India, which led to a terrible war and the dismemberment of Pakistan in this period.

PIA’s far-flung network, stretching from North America, Europe, the Gulf, China and Hong Kong at one stage, proved incapable of withstanding the pressures on the 1980s and 1990s.

A string of accidents, persistent government interference and the aggressive growth of Gulf based airlines all contributed to a poor financial performance.

More recently PIA has been dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, while still struggling to be profitable. A poor safety record led to the airline being banned from European airspace briefly in 2007. Several attempts have been made to privatise the airline but these have never been carried through and PIA continues to lose money while operating 33 aircraft including Boeing 777s and Airbus A320s, with over 7,000 employees.

Bangladesh Biman Airlines

With the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, from what was East Pakistan, Air Bangladesh was established in January 1972. The name was soon changed to Biman Bangladesh Airlines (more commonly ‘Biman’ – Bengali for airplane which

is derived from the Sanskrit “vimana”). The carrier initially used two Fokker F27 turboprops loaned by the Indian government, as all the aircraft in the country had been destroyed in the conflict. This type was to form the backbone of Biman’s fleet, with a leased Boeing 707 starting services to London not long after the airline was established.

The 707s remained the mainstay of Biman’s international operations until the McDonnell Douglas DC-10  joined the fleet in 1983, with the last DC-10 manufactured being delivered to Biman in 1989. The Airbus A310 twin-engine wide-body jetliner was inducted in 1996 allowing for more regional flights. The Boeing 777 joined the fleet later, and more recently Biman introduced the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. At its peak Biman Bangladesh Airlines operated a large network serving New York to the west and Tokyo to the east, including many points in-between.

In common with most airlines in the region, Biman has been beset by a poor safety record with numerous accidents over its history. This added to persistent allegations of corruption and mismanagement, all of which have led to poor financial results. The liberalization of aviation in Bangladesh has in turn seen the establishment of privately run airlines, which have made the sector very competitive.

Today Biman Bangladesh Airlines operates 13 aircraft out of its hub in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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