Today marks an historic moment in the world of commercial aviation – and the Gulf will be very much part of this landmark occasion.
A wide body passenger jet is scheduled to touch down in the UK this afternoon following an 8,000km journey from Asia.
It’s no ordinary aircraft. Not the much-talked about Airbus A380 superjumbo, nor a Boeing 747 and not even the US aircraft manufacturer’s most successful jet to date, the 777.
We have to go back in time just over four decades ago when the DC10, a popular plane of its era, made its debut across the US skies.
Today, the aircraft is on the last leg of an illustrious flying career as it ends commercial passenger service with a flight from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka to Birmingham via a refuelling stop en route in Kuwait City allowing more customers to board.
Aviation buffs from around the world have dug deep into their pockets flying all the way to the subcontinent and to Kuwait to check-in for a coveted boarding pass and the final scheduled commercial flight on this unique aircraft.
An iconic jet that features three engines, one mounted on the tail fin, and a cockpit without the gizmo electronics, systems and computers we see on today’s modern jets.
Traditionally a workhorse, this is an aircraft utilised for hours on end to maximum revenue returns and miles flown during a 24-hour cycle. A hybrid between the four-engine 747 jumbo and subsequent successor two-engine 777s, the DC10 proudly formed the backbone of some airlines’ wide body fleets traversing the world’s air corridors.
The likes of American Airlines, Dutch carrier KLM, Garuda Indonesia, Turkish Airlines, the former Swissair, Air New Zealand and Korean Air are among a host of international carriers to fly DC10 passenger aircraft, alongside numerous cargo-only operators.
Only 386 DC10 passenger jets were built during a 21-year production period from 1968 with a further 60 dedicated cargo planes and tankers manufactured specifically for the US Air Force for aerial refuelling missions and transporting shipments.
The aircraft suffered a turbulent history in the early part of its life, involved in more than 50 incidents and accidents, including nine hijackings that marred its reputation. Subsequent design changes brought significant improvements in aerodynamics, avionics and flight control systems that led to more reliability, more efficiency, more comfort and more consumer confidence.
It has flown over 25mn hours of commercial operations since the inaugural flight by American Airlines from Los Angeles to Chicago in 1971.
What’s now left of the ageing jets of different variants are dedicated freighters and selected charters. One has even been converted into an eye hospital flying around the world under the auspices of the Orbis charity. Doctors and nurses perform surgery onboard as the aircraft, equipped with an operation theatre positioned between the wings, flies to mainly under privileged nations to cater for those needing treatment.
However, succession planning has seen newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft taking over. The fuel-guzzling DC10 was gradually off-loaded to airlines in Africa, taken out of service completely, sold as scrap metal or and even parked in the vast aircraft graveyard that sits in the California desert.
Production halted in 1989 and spare parts became increasingly hard to come by.
Today’s farewell to the DC10 is by a lesser known operator, Biman Bangladesh Airlines. Not an airline that immediately catches one’s imagination.
But Biman is making the most of the occasion. With scant publicity over the years, the state-owned carrier is milking PR surrounding the departure of the last DC10 as it welcomes a new-look, wide body fleet made up of the Boeing 777.
“Out With the Old, In With the New” as Biman promotes a fresh era in the country’s aviation industry: final phasing out of its DC10s which have been the backbone of the airline’s long-haul programme for 30 years.
Last week, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina presided over a colourful ceremony to bid farewell to Biman’s oldest asset which strangely enough bears the name “New Era” and greet the arrival of its newest, fresh from Boeing’s assembly plant in Seattle.
More than 500 guests saw the two aircraft parked near each other separated by a stage as guest speakers showered praise on both the old and new kids on the block.
Compare it to an ageing rock band ready to call it a day, Biman is lapping up the limelight with a DC10 Farewell Tour after the aircraft’s arrival in Birmingham.
Aviation geeks have been snapping up places for specially chartered DC10 scenic tours over England this weekend before the aircraft makes its ultimate stop – a final resting place at an aviation museum in the East Midlands village of Bruntingthorpe in Britain.
Biman’s three abandoned DC10s remain parked at Dhaka’s Shahjalal International Airport waiting to be scrapped.
For those used to luxury travel, wide seats, fully reclining business seats and individual personal screen inflight entertainment systems, the Biman DC10 experience is not for you. The interior decor remains drab with little change to the gaudy red, orange, brown and green flower colour scheme introduced back in 1983. Torn seats, broken arm rests, shabby galleys – certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Remember the overhead projectors of yesteryear beaming movies onto a pull down white screen in each cabin? Biman had it all.
But hey, this is in itself a unique experience seeing first hand how an airline has remained static, doing very little to spruce up its image for years. The demise of the DC10 has put things into perspective: with an all-Economy seating for 314 passengers, a stark contrast between old and new for the ailing airline, which pledges to make change for the better.
For the first time in its 42-year history, the airline has brought in foreign management to help reverse the airline’s poor fortunes.
Since formation, Biman has been in and out of hospital, treated for wounds that sadly were unable to fully heal with permanent scars that have made it difficult to get into shape and a fit state.
It has suffered from a plethora of problems ranging from mismanagement, corrupt practices, inefficiency, poor punctuality averaging 30%, inadequate scheduling, no processes nor systems, no staff appraisals, lack of service at every consumer touch point, no product investment, no structured departments, a recruitment freeze for more than three years, cumbersome decision-making through committees and malicious bookings by travel agents over the years that have cost the airline millions of dollars every year.
The airline had a history of launching routes, then suspending them, all down to lack of foresight and inadequate analysis of potential route performance. Without basic systems in place to address problems, issues just escalated.
It adopted short-term strategies of leasing aircraft at peak times such as Haj rather than invest in its own.
Biman’s statistics are not good reading. Only seven aircraft in its fleet after the removal of today’s last DC10; a ratio of 400 employees per aircraft when the industry average is around 200; only 1.8mn passengers flown each year; and only 1% of bookings made online when the industry is seeing in excess of 30%. The list is endless.
A poor showing for an airline that’s been around for so many years, particularly in today’s fast-paced aviation environment. The above combined is a recipe for disaster. Biman has managed to somehow pull through but for how long can it balance on a tight rope?
Led by managing director and chief executive officer Kevin Steele, the team of ex-British Airways professionals is embedded at the airline’s airport headquarters in Dhaka to work on the turnaround.
Steele, who took the helm of the airline in March 2013 on a two-year contract, was mandated to fix the airline from the bottom up.
With years of experience in the subcontinent working at British Airways, he knows all too well the challenging environment he is in, but relishes the task of breathing life in the airline and distance it from the butt of industry jokes.
By his own admission, the “man of steel” says Biman needs fixing badly and quickly as some areas are “grossly inefficient” due largely to a lack of systems in place.
“I am used to going into an airline and changing things around. It’s no different here,” he says, pointing to a strategic need to turn in a profit within two years and potentially go to privatisation after three successive years of profitability.
“I have worked for a number of airlines in my career but never have I come across an airline that does not have a revenue management system,” he adds.
He refers to the basic tool any airline must have to manage pricing of seats in different booking classes on every flight in order to maximise revenue earned.
By forecasting demand based on historical data, an airline is able to adjust pricing levels for each seat sold to secure the best possible yield – difference between cost and revenue, which in turn paves the way for operational profitability or loss.
A two-year strategy he presented to the prime minister within weeks of joining outlined the need to double the fleet to 15 aircraft, increase frequency to existing destinations and add new international routes in North America, Europe and Asia to support 18 current destinations – and, more importantly, re-launch domestic flights suspended due to a lack of aircraft.
In the Middle East, the eight destinations of Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Muscat, Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam represent almost half of Biman’s entire network. The nature of the traffic is largely labour movement. Like the global operations, most of the routes operate via points rather than non-stop to and from Dhaka, which the Biman management wants to fix to make it more appealing to a cross section of the travelling public.
Over the next 12 months, route start-ups are planned to Frankfurt, New York, Toronto, Tokyo, Ho Chi Minh City and Guangzhou and Kunming in China, Male, Colombo and Karachi.
As part of a longer 10-year plan submitted by Steele, endorsed by the International Monetary Fund to ensure it is robust and sustainable, a further doubling of the fleet to 30 aircraft and a host of new routes are earmarked by 2023.
The current seven-strong fleet comprises three Boeing 777 aircraft – two of which have been leased from another airline – two Boeing 737s and two Airbus A310s.
In 2007, Biman ordered 10 Boeing 777 aircraft from the manufacturer, the first of which arrived direct from Boeing earlier this month, full with the amenities one would expect of an airline today. A sophisticated inflight entertainment system for every passenger, flat Business Class seating, revamped menus designed by a celebrity chef and a fresh look at inflight service among others.
In recent months, the corporate website has been re-launched, a new in-flight duty free programme implemented, a frequent flyer scheme introduced and the website enhanced to offer more booking functionality.
It literally has been building from scratch and getting rid of dated processes and procedures which, by admission of the new management, have been poorly handled over the years. The ailing airline needed to get better to be competitive.
With only 40% of the work completed so far, Steele still has a huge shopping list to complete. Creating a new domestic operation by bringing in new aircraft this year; setting up joint ventures with internationally-reputed companies in airport ground handling and cargo handling; and signing code share marketing deals with airlines to provide passengers with more choice.
On the DC10, he says the aircraft has long performed its best. “Airlines quietly pull older aircraft from service every day and generally are never seen again. However, as a lover of aviation, l think the retirement of the DC10 is something special and deserves a more fitting send-off to an aviation museum.”
There may be tears shed for the old warrior, but a new beginning is what cash-strapped Biman has aspired towards for years if it is to survive a fiercely competitive world out there.
Removing the DC10 is perhaps truly the start of a new era.
♦ Updesh Kapur is a PR & communications professional, columnist, aviation, hospitality and travel analyst. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter:@updeshkapur)
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