You’re the subject of a new documentary, following your efforts to start up an airline. Why would you want to do something like that?
The motivation behind what I’m trying to do is to solve a problem. It’s a problem shared by countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan and some of the African destinations. I’m trying to tackle this problem by launching an airline to offer alternatives to passengers who demand an alternative. Our plan is a five-year plan, that’s how long it will take us to realise our ultimate long haul ambition. Brexit has slowed things down. Initially we explored the idea of going into long haul straight away, but post-Brexit we’ve had to significantly re-strategise and come up with a new plan. It’s a three-phase plan, which is to get into the industry as a small charter operator, then in phase two, grow and scale up, and possibly start mid-haul operation with a narrow-body aircraft. Abd phase three would be the ultimate phase, to operate long haul flights to places like Pakistan and Bangladesh, and places in Africa.
So what’s the problem you’re solving?
I’m from Bangladesh. We have one flagship operator, which is called Biman Bangladesh, and we’re stuck in a love-hate relationship with our flagship carrier. We have no other alternative, if you want to fly direct to Sylhet. In fact, it’s not even direct. On the way out, you go direct, and on the way back, it’s indirect. People want to reach their destination as quickly as possible.
So the problem is that there isn’t a good enough direct service to lots of these places?
Explain a bit about your background – how have you made your money?
I wouldn’t call myself a rich person or anything. What I do say is that I work extremely hard. When I want to achieve something, I really try and get it done. I started off by selling perfumes – we literally started off with £600, and slowly, slowly we’ve grown the company by re-investing our capital, and today we’re still trying to grow the company. I don’t have a multi-millionaire background, I don’t have rich parents or anything – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. So fir me, it’s about working hard, and really making things happen. I watch a lot of motivational videos, I read a lot of books by entrepreneurs, and I see how they’ve done it, and almost always it’s down to hard work, dedication and focus. So, in answer to your question, my background is retail, but ultimately I’m an entrepreneur, I’m not bound to any particular industry. If I want to go into a new industry, then that’s what I’ll do. In this case, I’ve chosen aviation because I’ve spotted a huge problem. If I can solve this problem for Pakistan and Bangladesh, it would be a heroic achievement.
Why did you agree to be filmed?
I’m a nobody, to be honest. And if people get to see that a nobody can achieve so much, then I think I can inspire a lot of people. And, on the back of it, you get to tell the story to a national audience, and they get to see what it’s like to launch an airline. And the ultimate reason, obviously, is it’s going to bring a real profile to the company.
What is it you love about planes so much?
The jet fuel smell! Look, it’s the whole complex set-up, and how it all fits together like clockwork. The day before yesterday, I was in the airport, and I just felt like “Wow! How does it all work? Airport operators, airline operators, working hand-in-hand with the ground handling agents, fuel suppliers, all the stuff comes together, and it’s fascinating. And the ultimate fascination is “How does this machine take off with such a big load, so many passengers, so much cargo?” It’s amazing, it’s fascinating to me, I want to be part of this industry, and if I can solve a problem at the same time, then why not?
It’s not your first job working with planes, is it?
No, it’s not. I’ve pretty much done everything you can imagine. I started right at the bottom, so my first job was as an aircraft cleaner. I took that job on in 2005, and worked there for two years. After that I moved to aircraft catering, where our company made food for the airlines. My responsibility was to drive the 7.5-ton truck, take the fresh food to the flights and get the old trollies back. And to keep the work environment neat and tidy. But with that, I got to interact with pilots, with ground staff, airline executives, cabin crew staff. I’ve seen how the operation works from behind the scenes, and that made me even more intrigued. So I made myself a promise then, that if I was going to do something, it would be something to do with aviation. So that’s when I decided to retake some of my GCSEs. My passion led me to go back into the classroom on evenings, after work, and retake my GCSEs.
How is your airline different from others? How will it stand out?
I think our whole branding element would really stick out. We’re different, kind of wacky, colourful and exciting. Secondly, we’ll be operating to destinations no-one else wants to operate. Of course we’ll do it with safety in mind, if a destination is dangerous, we don’t want to go there. We would fly to under-served destinations with a strong commercial demand. We’ll scrutinise each and every route before we even think of exploring it further. And we’d offer an enhanced service. What I really want to do ultimately is this: The majority of the people travel in Economy Class. As the industry is becoming more efficient and cost-effective, the guys that suffer are the ones at the back. So what I want to do is try and get some balance into the cabin layout. We were exploring some ideas around a single class configuration – we wouldn’t have Premium Economy and First Class and so on. We wanted to have a common class configuration, where Economy passengers are kind of upgraded a notch, in terms of service offerings, and business class is downgraded a notch, to meet somewhere in the middle. And food is a very important aspect of an airline. We want our food to be top notch. We would pay a lot of attention to our food, we want our passengers to be fed well. And we would want to be adaptable to passengers requirements. There would be a lot of elderly people, perhaps a lot of disabled people who would be travelling with us, and for those people we would be willing to go the extra mile to make the journey more comfortable. We were exploring ideas where the check-in staff will come to the elderly people , if they’re sitting with their bags, we’ll come to them instead of them coming to us and waiting in a queue. Those small things will really add up. We want our customers to become our marketing, we want them to go and spread the word, and other people will fly with us because of the word of mouth.
At one point in the film, you’re shown reading a load of really hateful Islamaphobic comments online. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel really upset. Even today, there as an article published discrediting all the hard work that we do. We didn’t hurt anyone. We are just trying to offer an alternative service, and it really disheartens me when people go to the extent of making hateful comments. Going through the whole process of writing articles that discredit everything you do, or add doubts to people’s minds – why would someone do that?
Do you worry about the level of risk involved, with you and other people putting up money?
Oh my God, it’s a huge responsibility. It’s one thing, just losing your own money, you can cut your losses and move on to the next thing. But when it’s other people’s money involved, we need to be so on point, that we can do everything with logical evidence. We can’t just do things out of emotion. It’s very important that every single member of the team realises that without those investors we wouldn’t go very far. So if we can deliver a good return, we’ll get more money to do exciting things. If we end up losing, and if we end up going belly up, it’s not going to be fruitful for anyone. And I don’t want to be named a national failure on Channel 4.
Would you ever be tempted to take flying lessons yourself?
Definitely, 100 per cent. I would take flying lessons, and I want to take flying lessons, but not to fly commercially. Just for fun. Just to accomplish something. Obviously I’ve accomplished a lot of things, but in this world, entrepreneurs are a breed of people who don’t get much official recognition. If you’re a doctor, you’re a doctor for life. But with entrepreneurs, that’s not the case. You always have something to prove. So I think becoming a pilot might give me that seal of approval.
How to Start an Airline, Wednesday 13th June, 10:30pm, Channel 4