Biman DC-10 Adventure I - Highlights of AK720 & BG87

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Introduction

With its distinctive tail mounted engine and blunt nose, the photogenic McDonnell Douglas DC-10 had been the subject of adoration by aviation enthusiasts around the world. After more than four decades of commercial service, the DC-10 had been progressively phased out by airlines in favour of its successor, the MD-11 or by more efficient widebody twin engined aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A330. Biman Bangladesh Airlines was thus left as being the sole remaining airline that operates this remarkable aircraft in passenger revenue service.

A group of us mounted our first attempt at flying the Biman DC-10 back in 2007 when the airline was actively servicing the SIN-BKK-DAC route with the DC-10. After a fair amount of research, we managed to track down the GSA (General Sales Agent) for Biman Bangladesh Airlines in Singapore and attempted to book a round trip on the SIN-BKK sector for approximately S$350. Unfortunately, we were too late as the SIN-BKK sector was terminated shortly thereafter and the flight was rerouted to fly SIN-DAC direct using their newly acquired B737-800 aircraft instead.

The idea fell by the wayside until early this year when a pair of fellow Singaporean aviation enthusiasts decided to take advantage of the launch fare by Tiger Airways to Dhaka and to fly the Biman DC-10 on the short domestic sector between Dhaka and Chittagong. The trip was a success and spurred a number of us to conjure up a similar trip to log a flight on the DC-10.

Booking

As part of its renewal efforts, Biman Bangladesh Airlines had launched their online booking system in 2011 which allows passengers to book their tickets directly with the airline. In addition to being able to partially stamp out unscrupulous travel agents from overcharging passengers for the tickets, the system also allowed us to check the schedules with relative ease (as compared to before the official website and integrated ticketing system was launched) and explore our options for getting onboard a DC-10. We decided to book a return flight on the Dhaka (DAC) –Chittagong (CGP) domestic sector as it represented our best chances and most economical option to fly on the DC-10. The booking process was straight forward and international credit cards were accepted as payment through a secured portal. The e-ticket was then available via a link created to Sabre’s virtuallythere.com website.

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With a trio of us flying to Dhaka via Singapore from Australia on Singapore Airlines, it only remained for both of us to find a way to get from Singapore to Dhaka as Singapore Airlines and Biman Bangladesh Airlines charged rather high fares for this lucrative route. Our initial option was to fly Tiger Airways for both sectors but we later realized that the fare for KUL-DAC-CGP-DAC routing (USD275) was not significantly higher than the DAC-CGP-DAC (USD160) route that we had booked earlier. It would also allow us to experience a flight on Biman’s new B777-300ER on the KUL-DAC sector.

Cancellation of the original ticket proved to be rather troublesome as it was not possible to do it through the phone and it had to be done personally at the airline’s ticketing office located at Anson House. One of us had a first hand experience interacting with the airline’s Bangladeshi staff at the office as they tried to persuade us to change the ticket date instead of an outright cancellation. After that was settled, we booked our preferred routing on Biman’s website and snapped up the lowest fare on an evening departure on Air Asia to bring us from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur where we would begin our Biman adventure.

Visa Formalities

Singapore passport holders require a visa to enter Bangladesh and as no Visa on Arrival privileges is available for Singaporeans, we had to make two separate trips to the High Commission of Bangladesh to obtain our visas. A form had to be downloaded from the High Commission’s website and three passport sized photos had to be submitted together with a copy of the confirmed air tickets. It costs S$24 for a single trip visa with a validity of 30 days and takes between 3 – 5 working days for it to be processed. It is worthy to note that exact change has to be tendered upon the submission of the visa application. The applications are only handled in the morning and took about 40mins for us to queue while the collection was swift and we were given our passports with the stamped and hand written visa within 10mins of arrival at the premises.

AK720 Singapore Changi to Kuala Lumpur – LCCT

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Date: Thursday, 06 Sep 12
Aircraft: 9M-AHW / Airbus A320-200
Seats: 21F
Departure Gate: C19

Scheduled Departure Time: 2120 LT
Boarding Time: 2130 LT
Push Back: 2153 LT (33 mins behind schedule)
Takeoff: 2214 LT on runway 20C
Cruise Altitude: 24,000 ft

Scheduled Arrival Time: 2230 LT
Touchdown: 2301 LT on runway 32L
Actual Arrival Time: 2309 LT (39 mins behind schedule)
Arrival Stand: F73

Check-In

AirAsia allows self check-in on their website from booking confirmation up to 1 hour before departure. However, the seats are assigned at random and we were allocated 22E/F when we checked in 2 days before our flight. Meeting up at the airport after work, we proceeded to Row 13 at Terminal 1 which houses the common check-in queue for all Air Asia operated flights (AK, QZ & FD). Although there were separate desks for document verification for passengers travelling without check-in luggage, it was observed that it was not enforced and all the queues were clogged up with passengers with large suitcases checking in for another flight to Jakarta on QZ. We were attended to after spending ten minutes in the queue by a courteous check-in staff and our boarding pass printouts were exchanged for the flimsy ‘supermarket receipt’ boarding passes that is preferred by many low cost carriers. There was a row of empty self check-in kiosks located at the end of the row but the inconspicuous location meant that most passengers only noticed them after completing their check-in at the desks.

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After clearing immigration at the automated lanes, we proceeded to the 24 Hour Food Gallery located at the 3rd floor of the recently renovated Terminal 1 for a quick dinner. Perhaps as an attempt to reflect the diverse and deep rooted multi-cultural integration in Singapore, it was interesting to note that the Hainanese Chicken Rice stall was manned by an Indian who spoke passable Chinese. The portion of the steamed chicken rice (S$5) was adequate but the chicken was undercooked with noticeable tinge of raw, uncooked meat near the bones.

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QANTAS B747-400 VH-OJU ‘Spirit of the Australian Team’ special livery at Gate C24 operating QF52 to Brisbane. Often referred to as the “Boxing ‘Roo’” after the gloved kangaroo on the tail, this special livery was created in support of the Australian national team’s participation in the 2012 Olympic Games.
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The Flight

A long queue had formed outside the gate holdroom as the arrival of the aircraft was delayed. Passengers were only allowed to pass through the security check and into the gate holdroom shortly after all the passengers from the arriving flight had disembarked the aircraft.
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Boarding commenced simultaneously with the opening of 2 of the 3 available security check lanes. Our flight was operated by 9M-AHW (l/n 4098) which was delivered to AirAsia on 11 Nov 2009. As such, the interior featured the updated A320 interior which included decorative trimmings around each window and the redesigned overhead luggage rack latch handles. The standard black leather seats were also emblazoned with the AirAsia logo at the back of the headrest and I also noticed that clear plastic velcro-ed windows were also embedded at the back of tray tables that might serve as additional advertising space. Moreover, it was unusual to note that 2 editions of safety cards were placed in most of the seat pockets - 03-2011 & 07-2011 with the latter featuring a more manga-like approach to the illustrations.
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Damaged seat belt buckle at my seat (21F). One of the two springs had been broken while the other spring that holds the retaining plate in place had also been damaged. Thus, it was possible for the belt buckle to give way with much less force than what it should sustain in the unlikely event of an emergency.
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The overhead signs on the passenger service units had also been updated to display a more relevant "No Electronic Devices and Mobile Phones" sign which is lit when the aircraft is on the ground and during the critical phases of flight.
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The aircraft pushed back 33 minutes behind schedule and a cursory announcement was made to apologise for the delay which was simply attributed due to late arrival of the aircraft. After pausing for an Air China A330-300 which taxiied into the central apron, we commenced a slow crawl towards runway 20C for departure. As a result of the traffic congestion at Changi Airport at this hour, AirAsia had scheduled an unusually long block time of 70mins for the short hop to Kuala Lumpur.
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The engines were derated for takeoff and the effects could be felt as the aircraft rolled past Terminal 2 and rotated near South Cross in the hazy night sky. Moreover, the fuselage also shuddered and the wings strained to gain sufficient lift after rotation with the derated thrust settings that were selected for takeoff.

Shortly after the "Fasten Seat Belt" signs were switched off, the crew swung into action and conduction a brief pass of the cabin with the food & beverages trolley. However, there were scarcely any sales on this short post dinner hop and the cabin was soon prepared for landing into KLIA.

Although the flight crew mentioned about fine weather on the ground at KUL, the aircraft descended through heavy thunderstorm clouds for the next 20 mins from the cruising altitude of 24,000ft. After breaking through the heavy cloud cover, power was again applied to the engines and the aircraft made a steep left hand bank and climbed back into the clouds. Through the gaps in the clouds, we could make out the perimeter lights of KUL and the runway lights and it became apparent that we had came in far too high to attempt a safe landing and thus a missed approach procedure was necessary. With this turn of events, our hopes for the aircraft to make up for the delay with the generous block time was dashed.

After a further turbulent 10 minutes in the air, we made a firm landing onto runway 32L and taxiied to the KLIA-LCCT. Despite the abundance of empty slots near the international wing of the LCCT, the aircraft came to stop at F73 near the domestic wing nearly 40 minutes behind schedule. Immigration clearance was fast as the bulk of the passengers from another Cebu Pacific flight from Manila were directed to a separate area of the terminal to process their work permits.

Airport Liner operates 2 routes from the pick-up area outside the domestic wing of KLIA-LCCT, with one free service plying between the terminal and POS Malaysia & Maybank while another route plies between the main terminal building and LCCT. It costs RM2.50 for the 15 minute hair-raising trip on a SKS bodied Daewoo bus which was clearly not designed to withstand the speed at which the driver charged down the perimeter road. We eventually reached the main terminal building at midnight and proceeded to the departure level to check in for our flight to Dhaka on Biman Bangladesh Airlines.
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BG 87 Kuala Lumpur to Dhaka

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Date: Friday, 07 Sep 12
Aircraft: S2-AFO "The Palki" / Boeing B777-300ER
Seats: 8A
Departure Gate: C2

Scheduled Departure Time: 0215 LT
Boarding Time: 0145 LT
Push Back: 0218 LT
Takeoff: 0238 LT on runway 32L
Cruise Altitude: 34,000 ft > 36,000ft after Thailand

Scheduled Arrival Time: 0400 LT
Touchdown: 0358 LT on runway 14
Actual Arrival Time: 0402 LT
Arrival Gate: 6

Check-In

Biman Bangladesh Airlines is handled by MAS at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) from check-in row A located at the extreme corner of the terminal building. With almost exactly 2 hours to go before the scheduled departure time, we were dumbstruck at the incredulous sight of several snaking queues of overloaded baggage trolleys stretching across the entire length of the check-in row. Amidst the usual bulging suitcases, mattresses were also folded up and encased in plastic wrap, countless brown cardboard boxes and the obligatory Samsung LCD TV boxes also made up the bizarre mix of items to be checked in. In retrospect, we looked distinctively out of place in the queue with our small carry on baggage.

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The sheer volume of check-in luggage also meant that each check-in staff had an assistant to help do the heavy lifting since much of the bundled up mattresses and cardboard boxes simply wouldn’t bulge on the automatic conveyor transfer belt and had to be manually lifted onto the main conveyor belt running through the median of the check-in row. As a result, the check-in process for the flight also proceeded very slowly and it became clear why Biman deploys their heavy lift equipment such as the B777-300ER and B747-400 on this route.

The queues merged into a common queue and after close to 40 minutes of shuffling along with the crowd, we were directed by an airport police who had the unenviable duty of maintaining order in the ensuing chaos to one of the 8 check-in counters that were open for the flight.
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We initially did not have high hopes of getting a good seat on our flight as we were near the back of the check-in queue and we noted that the particular male check-in staff we were directed was in a rather foul mood. He was surprised when we greeted him and he and his assistant’s mood instantly perked up when they noted that we did not have any check-in baggage with us for the flight. The overall mood instantly lightened and when we decided to try our luck to request for two separate window seats, we were pleasantly surprised when he placed a phone call to release seats 7A & 8A for us. We were then issued the standard MAS economy class boarding passes with our window seats in the front economy cabin and were wished a pleasant flight by the check-in staff.
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After clearing immigration and security, we headed to Old Town White Coffee for supper. Due to the late hours, a limited choice of dishes was available where we had Nasi Ayam Rendang and I had Iced Teh Tarik as a drink to go along with the meal. Meanwhile, the other group had arrived at Dhaka Hazrat Shahjalal airport on the Singapore Airlines flight but it had appeared that the hotel had failed to send a pick-up as requested in the e-mail reservation. We eventually managed to contact the hotel through a number listed in Google Maps as the telephone numbers provided on their website were inactive.
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The Flight

We caught sight of our aircraft berthed at Gate C2 at the satellite terminal while on the Aerotrain and was relieved that the airline’s flagship aircraft, the B777-300ER would be operating our flight to Dhaka tonight as scheduled. It was also to be my maiden flight on the B777-300ER and onboard Biman Bangladesh Airlines.

A group of Bangladeshis queuing at the gate holdroom shortly before the boarding call was announced. The gate agent initially thought that we were travelling on the Qatar Airways flight which was boarding at the adjacent gate and registered a look of disbelief when she verified our boarding passes. Another agent also conducted a random check to ensure that the hand luggage carried onboard meets the cabin baggage requirement.
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S2-AFO Boeing 777-3E9ER “The Palki” would be operating Biman Bangladesh Airlines Flight BG 87 to Dhaka tonight. The aircraft (msn 40122, l/n 964) was the 300th B777-300ER to be built and was delivered new to the airline on 22 Oct 2011. The aircraft was also the first in Biman’s fleet to wear the newest iteration of the carrier’s livery.
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A middle aged female stewardess welcomed us onboard into the brightly lit cabin and we noted that our seats was in the second and third row of the front economy class cabin which was largely empty in the front rows. The centre bulkhead of the economy class cabin was decorated with a green floral motif which matched the bright green seat fabric used for the seats.
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The standard slimline economy seats were sourced from Weber Aircraft LP and featured an integrated Thales IFE (Inflight Entertainment) system which was a pleasant surprise.
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Legroom was adequate at an industry standard 32” and the cabin was configured in a comfortable 3-3-3 seating layout. The spacious seat pockets were largely empty except for a safety card and an airsickness bag with the airline’s logo printed on it.
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The location of the remote controller for the IFE at the middle row of bulkhead seats meant that the attendant call button and the reading light buttons could be activated unintentionally by just bumping against the remote. With the obscure and awkward location of the small lock release button, it can also be a challenge for passengers to raise or stow the foldable IFE screens in a dark cabin.
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Combined lavatory and fasten seat belt signs at the centre row of seats (top)
Updated overhead signs at the passenger service units show a more relevant No Electronic Devices and Mobile Phones sign instead of the No Smoking sign as virtually all commercial flights had prohibited smoking onboard the aircraft for more than a decade. (bottom)
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Shortly after, the cabin doors were closed and the aircraft was pushed back from the gate for an on-time departure. We were pleased that we had managed to get an entire block of 3 seats each to ourselves for the flight. View out of seat 8A at gate C2 showing the massive GE90-115B engine. The Thai Airways A300-600R was laying over for the night before an early morning departure to Bangkok later.
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An announcement was made by the purser in Bangla and English about the flight and passengers were informed that the approximate flying time would be 3hr 15mins. The cabin crew also made a show of arming the cabin doors and cross-checking the doors across the aisle with smart, sharp movements and commands before switching on the IFE system to screen the safety demonstration video. However, being my first flight on a B777-300ER, my attention was instead focused on the start-up of the twin GE90-115B engines which spooled up with the signature bass tones which resonated throughout the cabin and drowned out the cabin announcements (see Youtube video below). It was easy to see why these engines had become a firm favourite among many aviation enthusiasts around the world!



Following a cursory check of the cabin, the crew settled in at the empty seats at the front of the cabin as the aircraft commenced its lengthy taxi to runway 32L for departure. The cabin crew only moved to their takeoff stations and strapped themselves in the jumpseats after a final announcement was made by the cockpit crew before the aircraft turned onto the runway. With no aircraft ahead of us at 2am in the morning, the massive engines were spooled up and the aircraft sped down the runway and made a smooth and powerful takeoff into the night sky. The roar of the engines was replaced by a high pitched whine as the throttles were eased back shortly after takeoff. It was certainly a novel experience to be seated ahead of the engine as this area of the cabin would normally be occupied by premium class seats on most other full service airlines.



A snack comprising of a packet of salted peanuts and the airline’s famed Starship Mango Juice was distributed to passengers after the Fasten Seat Belt signs were turned off. Having heard much about the ‘legendary’ drink from those who had flown Biman, I was eager to sample it and found it to be rich in flavour and was not overly sweet. It however, tended to be syrupy with a thicker consistency as compared to the usual fruit juices and as such might not appeal to some.
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Sealed headphones were also handed to passengers to sample the entertainment offerings available in the IFE system. The quality of the headphones were again, unexpectedly decent and were more comfortable as compared to comparable SQ headphones. Immigration arrival cards were also handed out to passengers by the cabin crew.
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The curtains to the galley were not drawn as the crew prepared the hot meal choices and the fragrance of hot briyani soon permeated throughout the cabin. Another male flight steward also poured trays of paper cups of soft drinks from 1.5 litre bottles in an almost regal fashion.
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Biman aluminum meal containers. The large galley space on the B77W and the short sector meant that the catering for both sectors were prepared at the airline's catering centre at Dhaka Hazrat Shahjalal Airport.
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Passengers were served the hot supper an hour after takeoff and there were no choices of meal available and each received a tray containing the hot dish, a dessert and a random cup of unchilled Sprite or Coca Cola. A flight steward also came around and distributed additional cups of unchilled mineral water. The curry chicken briyani dish was above average with a generous portion of long grained basmati rice that had the right combination of spices infused into it. The chicken pieces were on the dry side but the fragrant curry sauce made up for the shortcoming. A small lemon butter cake was served as the accompanying dessert and was decent. There was a subtle hint but not overpowering taste of lemon and the butter was not exceedingly oily as well.
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Disposable hard plastic cutlery was packaged together with packets of condiments and napkins with the carrier’s name and logo splashed across the paper packaging.
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The cabin crew went through the aisles armed with pots of coffee in hand after the bulk of the passengers had completed their meals. Following which, the meal trays and litter were collected and the cabin lights were dimmed for passengers to take a rest or continue to enjoy the IFE system.

Forward economy class cabin. Biman Bangladesh’s 2 B77Ws are configured with a dense two class 419 seat configuration which consist of 35 business class seats (2-3-2) and 384 economy class seats (3-3-3). In addition, no mood lighting is installed in the economy class cabin but white LEDs which simulate the stars in the night sky are installed in the business class cabin.
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The business class cabin on Biman's B777-300ER is configured in a 2-3-2 configuration with individual shell seats. It is similar to that found on Air India's B777.
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Composite photo of the front and rear of the Biman Bangladesh Airlines B777-300ER safety card which bears a striking resemblance to the design used by Singapore Airlines. The safety card also indicates a first class seat in its illustrations when both aircraft in the fleet are only fitted with a two class cabin.
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The standard B777 economy class lavatory was installed in the aircraft, except that each sign is repeated in Bengali characters as the aircraft was delivered as a factory fresh aircraft which had been customised to the airline's requirements. Additional toiletries such as combs and toothbrushes were not provided in the lavatory and only basic soap is provided from the integral dispenser. It also seemed that a mop is a standard lavatory equipment across Biman's varied fleet of aircraft!
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The AVOD IFE options are presented on a touch screen display and are sorted out into different categories. The latest English movies contain a selection of movies released in 2010 such as Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, The Expendables and The King's Speech. In addition, aviation enthusiasts might also find the comprehensive section dedicated to the history of the airline interesting. This section also mentioned about the three DC-10-30s (9V-SDB, 9V-SDD & 9V-SDF) that were sold by Singapore Airlines to Biman Bangladesh Airlines in 1983.
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The comprehensive airshow channel provided information about the aircraft's location and related flight data such as altitude and cruising speed. As Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country, an additional screen also showed the relative position of Mecca (Qibla) for passengers who wish to perform their prayers during the flight.
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I settled in and watched the first Sherlock Holmes movie which was released in 2009 as I had only watched the second movie that was released in 2011. The IFE system proved to be stable with no faults or skipping during the movie playback and was only interrupted by the occasional cabin announcement screen which filled up the entire screen instead of a discreet popup on other airlines' IFE systems.

Our flight tracked north towards the Gulf of Thailand before veering to follow the eastern coast of the Andaman Sea towards Myanmar. The aircraft also climbed from the initial cruising altitude of 34,000ft to 36,000ft shortly after passing near Hua Hin. However, slight turbulence started to rock the aircraft as we crossed over Myanmar into Bangladesh and commenced our descent over Chittagong.

An announcement was made shortly after the aircraft started its descent towards Dhaka and to the chagrin of many passengers, the IFE system was abruptly turned off without any warning. Following which, the headphones were collected by the cabin crew and the cabin was prepared for landing.

The lights of the sprawling city of Dhaka soon appeared and the crew executed a tight 180 degree left hand turn to align the aircraft towards runway 14 for landing. The landing lights were also switched on for the final approach and illuminated the huge GE90-115B engine.
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The residential district of Uttara flashed past uncomfortably close to the aircraft shortly before a smooth landing was made onto the sole runway at Dhaka Hazrat Shahjala airport. As the aircraft slowed down to exit the runway, several passengers started to stand up to retrieve their luggage and the cabin crew could be heard shouting for them to remain seated in Bengali (2:20 in the video).


We docked at Gate 6 at the deserted terminal apron and made our way through the clean and airconditioned terminal to the immigration area. Although we had braced ourselves for a lengthy queue from our experiences at the Bangladesh High Commission in Singapore, immigration was surprisingly quick as there were few foreigners on the flight and we were processed through the dedicated lanes in short order.

Baggage reclaim area at the arrival hall.
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It perhaps came as no surprise to us when we failed to spot our hotel pickup and we had to call the hotel again at 4am in the morning. However, it seemed that there was yet another breakdown in communications and we were instead requested to take a taxi to the hotel. After paying 1000 Taka (S$15.30) at the licensed taxi booth at the arrival hall, we were directed to a derelict Toyota car which was in such a poor condition that there were problems closing the passenger door! We were then treated to an early morning drive through dimly lit roads and were finally deposited at the front gate of our hotel after several detours as our driver struggled to find the correct area and passable entrance into the gated compound of Baridhara.

Next Post: Biman DC-10 Adventure II - Dhaka Walkaround & Highlights of BG37

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