Biman, Saudia relax passenger limit for flights carrying stranded Bangladeshi workers

What pandemic? Crowds swarm the Great Wall of China as travel surges during holiday week
October 8, 2020
Thai hotels in Maldives report on reopening
October 8, 2020
Biman Bangladesh Airlines and Saudia Airlines have relaxed the limit for the maximum number of passengers on each flight to alleviate the struggles of stranded Bangladeshi migrants to return to their country of employment amid the pandemic.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh announced the development in a statement on Monday.

The passenger capacity on the larger aircraft of both Biman and Saudia from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia has been set at 260 while the limit for smaller planes will be 140 until Oct 24, according to the statement.

CAAB asked the airlines to strictly follow the health protocols and expressed hope that the move would allow more migrants to return to work in the Middle East.

Over the last 20 days, thousands of Saudi expatriates were waiting outside the Dhaka headquarters of Saudia to get the return tickets which they had booked before the suspension of international air links in March over the coronavirus crisis.

On Sunday, authorities decided to hand out tokens for renewal of return tickets and the booking of new tickets, which escalated into chaos as protests broke out leading to baton charges from the police.

The authorities began distributing tickets in categories, causing the crowd to thin out around the ticket counter at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel. Migrants whose visas are about to expire are now able to collect their tickets directly from the counter.

On Monday, the crowds outside Saudia’s office had waned while the ambience inside Sonargaon Hotel, too, appeared comparatively calmer than in previous weeks.

Around 11am, an announcement was made that passengers whose visas expire by Oct 13 could collect their tickets right away if their documents were in order. Travellers whose visas expire within the next three days would be prioritised in terms of the return tickets.

Addressing concerns that the Dhaka office did not have the correct estimate of the number of passengers who need to be flown back to Saudi Arabia, Saudia’s ticket sales manager Omar Khayyam said the national carrier would reconsider the process of allocating tickets if the number of passengers exceeds authorities’ expectations.

The disclosure brought some relief to the anxious migrants.

But the confusion of those seeking renewed flight tickets was compounded by the airlines authorities’ vague announcements and repeated change of decisions, while many troubled by the situation raised complaints.

Adding to the air of uncertainty surrounding the issue, Saudia remained tightlipped about these complications and refrained from speaking to the media about it.

The ticket-seekers began crowding the Saudia headquarters hoping to renew their tickets a week before the authorities resumed flight operations from Dhaka at a reduced capacity on Sep 23.

The Gulf nation had cut off international air connectivity towards the end of March following the outbreak of the pandemic, putting those who arrived in Bangladesh before that with their return tickets booked in the ongoing crisis.

Apart from them, another 25,000 Bangladeshis had received fresh permits to travel to Saudi Arabia, but those who had their tickets booked would be prioritised.

WHY SUCH CROWDS

Bystanders and eyewitnesses reported that around 10,000 ticket-seekers gathered around Sonargaon Hotel on Sunday following an announcement over distributing new tokens.

However, with people’s patience running thin, the disciplinary order of the distribution broke down around 11am after just several hundred tokens were handed out as protests broke out.

With only seven people in administration on behalf of the Saudi Airlines’ Sonargaon Hotel office, the authorities had announced that date-specific tokens would be handed out to facilitate the distribution of new tickets to those with valid visas, iqama or residence permits and older tickets.

Responding to how many passengers may require ticket renewals, sales manager Khayyam told bdnews24.com that it was not possible to report a specific number from Bangladesh as they booked their tickets from Saudi Arabia.

He also pointed out that around 10,000 people gathered for tickets on Sunday and it far exceeded their expectations.

“We had no idea that so many people would show up. So at one point it was no longer possible to give tokens. We released a new form in the afternoon. In that form we are taking details such as passenger’s name, visa expiry date, old ticket number and phone number. Priority tickets will be issued for the passengers whose visas will soon expire,” Khayyam said.

According to Khayyam, many had arrived for tickets even though their visas had expired, resulting in the large crowds. But bdnews24.com spotted not a single man in the crowd who was seeking a ticket whose visa has expired.

WHY CALL SO MANY PEOPLE

‘Apel’, a ticket-seeker from Narsingdi who was protesting at the Karwan Bazar intersection on Sunday afternoon, said, “I’ve been roaming around the airlines’ office since 6am but I still have no idea when I’m going to get a ticket or a token.”

“I heard in the news that they will give out tokens today, but I’m yet to get anything. I’ve been coming here for 10 days but still don’t have an inkling of what’s going to happen,” Apel added.

Many such individuals who are spending days around the airlines’ headquarters made similar complaints about not receiving accurate information.

Robiul Hasan, from Mymensingh, said, “I’ve mortgaged my crop field for Tk 200,000 for the iqama (residency permit)… if I can’t go, I’ll be ruined.”

Hailing from Faridpur, Saud Uddin, who has been travelling to the Saudi airlines office at Karwan Bazar for the last four days looking for a route back to Saudi Arabia, echoed similar concerns.

“I spent Tk 150,000 for iqama and extension of my visa term. I had to extend visa terms twice after arriving in Bangladesh in November last year and my visa will expire on Nov 22. But before that happens, I want to return to my work in Saudi Arabia as soon as possible.”

“Today they will give out tokens to a thousand people but they’ve called out 20,000-30,000 people. They made some announcements but nobody could clearly hear them,” Saud said upsettingly.

AVOIDING THE MEDIA

On the other hand, Saudia’s indifference towards the media over the ongoing crisis has left people in the dark about how they plan to resolve the situation. 

The carrier’s Counter Manager Jahid Hossain declined comment when asked about the matter on Oct 2. 

“Please speak to the higher authorities. I’m not allowed to say anything,” he said.

Asked what he meant by ‘higher authorities’, he said, “I can’t do my work if I keep talking to you,” although he appeared to be resting at his office room while making the remark.

He was once again approached on Sunday afternoon when protests broke out. He simply pointed towards the country manager of Saudia Airlines who could not be found at his office.

Country Sales Manager Khayyam then said, “All information on ticket sales is with counter manager Jahid. He is the one who can tell you how many tickets are being distributed or how many tokens are being handed out. He can also tell you what the plan for the next day is.”

Meanwhile, reports of travel agencies illegally renewing tickets for Tk 20,000-30,000 and selling new tickets for Tk 100,000 also surfaced in the media.

Khayyam said, “We are not issuing any new tickets at the moment. Elderly passengers are being transported free of charge.”

Asked why he mentioned ‘free of charge’, he said these flights were not regular ones and that the passengers would be flown to the Gulf country on special flights.