The Biman pilot strike: misery for most, luxury for some

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Published in the Op-Ed section of The Independent on 6 November 2010

 

We dawdled on Freak Street

 

I fixed my eyes on the back of the taxi driver’s head, willing him to outmanoeuvre every vehicle on Kathmandu’s busy streets.  It wasn’t that we were travelling slowly, but I longed for excessive speed.  A knot of anxiety had formed in my stomach, and nothing but a swift arrival at the airport could unravel it.  A leisurely lunch and an inappropriately long wander along Kathmandu’s famous hippie hangout, Freak Street, had placed my travel companion and I in danger of missing our return flight to Dhaka.

As we shuffled our way along a curving, sheep pen-like queue to enter the departure terminal, I noticed a sign pasted to the window announcing a delayed flight.  It wasn’t ours.  Whilst I was once stupid enough to miss a flight from London to Rome, and then again from Rome to London, it occurred to me that, over the years, none of my flights have been delayed, let alone cancelled.  Shortly afterwards, for the sake of irony, I would regret not having spoken this thought out loud.

As the latest of latecomers, we took our place at the end of the check-in line for flight BG704.  Although there seemed to be at least 100 passengers ahead of us – some of whom were sitting cross-legged on the floor – I wasn’t overly bothered.  I was simply content that we’d made it.  And because we were the very last in the line and therefore had no position to covet, we decided to abandon queuing altogether.  We walked to a nearby shop, ordered cappuccinos and read our books on the seats provided.  As an escalator obstructed our view of the line, we set an alarm to go off every 15 minutes so that we could inspect its progress.  We smugly reasoned that we would resume our places when it shrank to a reasonable size.

“No improvement,” said my travel companion, after the first quarter of an hour had elapsed.

I don’t remember his exact words when he returned a second time, but I certainly recall their impact.  First came disbelief, which was followed by confusion and complemented by alarm.  After a minute or so, a small measure of excitement crept in to compete with the rest.  I was about to discover what happens to passengers when pilots get very, very cross.  Every Biman flight was cancelled: not just on October 28, but indefinitely.

It was easy to make our way to the front of the counter, because by this stage everyone in the now-futile queue had given up on the effort of standing.  Well, almost everyone.  We watched in awed horror as a Spanish would-be passenger let forth a stream of abuse at a Biman airline official.  We listened to him refuse the offer of free hotel accommodation.

“I MUST GET TO SINGAPORE NOW,” he shouted, before adding (expletives excluded), “I will try all other options before I come to your hotel.”

Eventually the Spaniard’s temper cooled by a couple of degrees and he switched to muttering under his breath to no one in particular.  Then, as if on cue, a Bangladeshi man, dressed in a smart t-shirt with the word “Sydney” embossed on his right chest, flapped his passport against the counter and repeated a milder version of the Spaniard’s sentiments to the same official.  To the latter’s credit, he remained unruffled, and within minutes, all real and potential complainants – around 20 of us – were shepherded back outside to the taxi rank.

 

Kathmandu

 

However the bulk of the passengers were simply left behind.  They were young, glum, Nepalese men, easily identified as migrant workers by their garishly coloured baseball caps and un-creased t-shirts bearing the names of manpower companies in exaggeratedly cheerful fonts.  I don’t know what happened to those men over the next two days.  My travel companion suggested that they might have been provided with dormitory accommodation, or perhaps something more uncomfortable.  Without knowing the truth, it’s unfair to speculate.  But it did seem terribly unjust that the foreign passengers were treated with utmost priority, as we had all paid (more or less) the same price for our plane tickets.  And it’s unlikely that many – if any – of the migrant workers had family to stay with in Kathmandu, as many are compelled to leave their homes in remote rural areas due to the scarcity of work.  Furthermore, as several newspapers reported, the travel delays caused countless numbers of migrant workers to lose their jobs before they even had the chance to begin.

As the “privileged 20” stood in the fading sunlight while waiting for answers, a sense of camaraderie quickly developed.

“Where do you need to be?” we asked one another sympathetically.

No one would miss a wedding or a funeral, though a pretty Singaporean woman was anxious about having little time to rest before starting her new job as an autistic therapist.  As it turned out, the Spaniard was due to meet a friend in Singapore.  “An old friend,” his girlfriend emphasised.

I felt most pity for a 38-day-old puppy, who was purchased from Nepal on account of its competitive rates for part-pedigrees.  He was a tiny, yet-unnamed, snow-white ball of fluffy loveliness – intended as a surprise for a bereaved canine-loving family member in Dhaka.  As the puppy cowered inside a pint-sized cage resting on a luggage trolley, he cried as only a being so new to the world can.  I lent down to stroke his little wet nose and he promptly fell asleep.  I wondered what his dreams might consist of, should he have any.

Though we weren’t flying, the rumours certainly were.  One person said that the strike was due to the appointment of foreign pilots to the state-run airline; others said that an afternoon meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had gone horribly wrong.  The only accurate information we possessed was that the partial strike had turned total, just moments before we were due to board.  We knew nothing of the pilots’ anger over the Bangladesh Airline Pilots’ Association’s decision to increase the retirement age from 57 to 65 without providing the same insurance entitlements to those who grew older than the existing retirement age.  The stranded passenger fear-mongers (myself included), wrongly proposed that no high-level meetings involving Biman’s feuding management and pilots would be held over the weekend.  We rued the fact that it was Thursday.  Some went even further by suggesting that the pending court decision would leave us stranded for at least a week.

And for some reason, we collectively assumed that we would be placed in a “Biman hotel” (so far as I know, no such thing exists, but it was nonetheless criticised for its anticipated lack of quality).  But as I observed the starched maroon uniforms worn by the two men who appeared to be responsible for allocating our rooms, I felt certain that wherever it was we were going would be a vast improvement on the 600 rupee hotel room I’d checked out of that morning.  But my wildest dreams were to grow dim in comparison.

As the bus rolled into a mile-long driveway surrounded by manicured lawns and tastefully arranged water features, I heard someone whisper the obvious, “Five stars.”  I playfully punched my travel companion in childish delight.  Although I had numerous deadlines pending, I hoped that my editors would understand my predicament (they did).

Once assembled in a grand outdoor lobby, the stranded passengers began asking questions that were of an altogether different nature from those uttered at the airport.

“Is there a pool?”

“A tennis court?”

“Will we get three free meals a day?”

Yes, yes, and yes.  I signed for the key – an electronic swipe card – and glided along a long stretch of regal green carpet to Room 1019.  In a word, I’d sum it up as palatial.

Much has been written about the misery endured by Biman’s stranded passengers, who were estimated to number in the thousands.  I have no idea why we in particular were provided with rooms that cost $230 a night, or whether our compensation for the inconvenience was uniquely generous.  Even the shortest of airline strikes can decimate a carrier’s profits – a fact that British Airways is reminded of time and again.  According to the UK union, UNITE, the troubled airline loses at least 24 million dollars a day when its staff go on strike.  Whilst this was the first time in over 20 years that all Biman’s domestic and international flights were cancelled, I shudder just to think of the bill accumulated at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kathmandu.

 

Poolside at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Kathmandu

 

Minimal savings were made the following day when we were transferred to a four star hotel.  My room had a plasma screen TV and I continued to gorge myself on buffet meals.  I even went for a swim, but was told off for wearing a t-shirt rather than a swimming costume.  The only difficulty I encountered – and I admit that it’s petty – was that I couldn’t afford to use the internet at either hotel because the minimum charge was over 600 rupees.  I used a stopwatch to make a one-minute “I’m okay” phone call to my parents’ answering machine in Melbourne.

While lounging around late into the night with three new Bangladeshi friends, a text came through from a wife in Dhaka.  The strike was off.  A late-night meeting with Sheikh Hasina’s assistant personal secretary and Biman’s senior pilots had provided sufficient assurance that their demands will be seriously considered.  Only time will tell what this may amount to.

And so, two lavish days later, we successfully checked in for a Dhaka-bound flight.  Other than an argument over whether a Bangladeshi passenger had to pay the penalty for overstaying his visa, there’s little point in elaborating further – it was just a boring old flight.

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