The travails of Bangladeshi air travelers

M Serajul Islam | Published: July 13, 2018 21:41:52

A great many of us Bangladeshis travel to the United States quite frequently. Many of us have daughters or sons or both and their families there. Thus notwithstanding the fact that the body says no to such long travel, the heart and mind push us despite our advancing years to take the journey to and from the United States. But the smiles of the loved ones, the sons and the daughters, the grandsons and the granddaughters, and the sons-in-law and the daughters-in-law still more than compensate the bodily ordeal that most of us set aside and take the journey once or two times every year,

There are no direct flights to the United States from Dhaka. In our case-myself and  my wife--we usually transit through the Middle East which means a flight of 4-5 hours to a Middle Eastern destination and then 14 hours' non-stop travel to Maryland on the east coast of the United States.  Those whose children live in the central USA and the west coast have to travel longer. The airlines have very little heart for the less fortunate travellers that are the majority who travel economy class. They cram us in the bare minimum space with a few airlines showing a little more heart than most others in creating a little extra space.

The airlines maximising their gains in a demonstration of blatant commercialism and the unbearably long haul of the flights are not just the only travails or ordeals that we who travel face, and there is a lot more that we face without any way of registering our displeasures. We just returned after a two months' trip to Maryland, USA and a little insight to what we faced would no doubt tell the story that many of us are forced to bear in silence. Our journey to the USA and back this time was in a carrier of the Middle East that boasts as one of the top airlines of the world.

This airline is doing roaring business with Bangladeshi nationals living in Bangladesh and the millions of our expatriates who live abroad, most of them in the Middle East, as passengers. Yet this airline and others of the Middle East that benefit from Bangladeshi nationals as passengers pay the minimum attention to our needs. The airline I flew did not even use the public address system at the departure lounge of the Middle East transit to ask passengers to take their seats in the aircraft and communicate other information.  It must have been out of order. They expected the passengers to make the effort to know for themselves which zone was being seated or other information that the airline should have communicated over the public address system. And when passengers were making mistakes or huddling before the counter for not knowing what to do, the airlines personnel were taunting them as if the passengers were at fault or were first-time passengers who did not know how to behave!

These airlines employ many Indians and Pakistanis. Some of them are often discourteous to Bangladesh passengers for reasons they alone could explain. For instance, no one from the airline cared to apologise to the passengers for the lack of the public address system at the departure lounge and instead taunted the passengers for problems caused due to the fact that the system was out of order. I heard an Urdu-speaking employee taunt some of the passengers that they were unnecessarily hurrying to board and that the aircraft would not leave without them! He was stupidly suggesting that these passengers who had purchased tickets and were not taking any favour from the airlines, were not aware that once in the departure lounge with a boarding pass, the aircraft could not leave without them!

Quite a number of the employees of the airlines of the Middle East as a common practice undermine Bangladeshi passengers because they arrogantly assume they are ordinary workers in the Middle East as if one has to have a certain class to expect good behaviour from their employees who are mostly expatriates themselves. And the taunting is done mostly by the Urdu-speaking expatriates of these airlines. In the flight I took back home, I heard another employee of the airline ask a group of Bangladeshis that they should board by zones and his instruction was in Urdu! The question that begs an answer from these Middle East airlines is why would they not employ Bengali speaking employees on the ground and in the aircraft for the millions of Bengali speaking passengers whose business beefs up their profits?

Of course, the employees of these airlines do not routinely misbehave with the Bangladeshi passengers. Nevertheless, their body language spells out clearly that there is a built-in discrimination against Bangladeshi passengers by these airlines. And this predicament of the Bangladeshi passengers travelling in Middle East-based airlines has a lot to do with the general unfortunate predicament of the Bangladeshi expatriates in the Middle East. It is common knowledge that Bangladeshi expatriates are often unfairly treated in all the Middle East countries where they work. And the Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose responsibility it is to deal with the matter has never acknowledged officially that there is any discrimination against Bangladeshi nationals in the Middle East and therefore has done very little so that Bangladeshis receive the same respect and legal rights as other expatriate nationals in the region. 

Thus it is often left to individual Bangladeshi travellers themselves to deal with the discriminations they face in travelling abroad in the Middle Eastern airlines or for that matter working in the Middle East as expatriates. And on my flight back home, I found out that having a US passport was not good enough for these Middle East-based airlines. The so-called world class airline in which I came home tried one on me. I was coming to Dhaka from IAD, Washington, with a one-way ticket. The flight attendant at the check-in counter asked me for my return ticket! I had to explain to her that she was demanding something that made no sense because the US government does not restrict its citizens travelling anywhere as long as his/her passport has a valid visa for travel abroad and a return ticket is not a condition for being issued with a US passport to travel abroad.

And asking for visas also did not make sense because US citizens can travel to a large number of countries without any visa requirement. Nevertheless, I had to show the attendant and her supervisor that I was issued a No Visa Required stamp on my passport by the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington that allowed me to stay in Bangladesh for any length of time. I was finally allowed to board the aircraft for an explanation I was asked to give because even with my US Passport, this Middle East airline was not willing to give me the benefit of a US passport holder perhaps because of my country of origin that happened to be Bangladesh.

And there is little respite for the Bangladeshi air traveller or those of Bangladeshi origin even when we land on Bangladesh soil. If we expect smiling faces at the Shah Jalal International Airport after our long ordeal on the insensitive ME based airlines, there is very little of it in place that belies the claims of the government of having graduated into a middle-income country. And one of the claims that the government makes proudly for that graduation is the great strides the country has made in the production of electricity. There is very little of that on display at the airport which is perhaps the most dimly lit one anywhere. One has to hold a hand on one's nose to enter the men's toilet because of the stench that is unbearable.  Ours was the only flight whose luggage had to be offloaded when we finally arrived in Dhaka after nearly 24 hours en route. But that took such inordinate delay that it was the salt on the injury that Bangladeshi passengers have to bear in their air travels.

M Serajul Islam is a former Ambassador.

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