The brazen attack on Pakistan’s largest airport left more than just a foul stench. The attack claimed 19 lives – excluding the terrorists – and casted a darker shadow on Pakistan’s security situation.
It also dealt a severe blow to an already flagging aviation industry, which has seen leading international airlines stop flights in the last few years partly because of security concerns, officials said.
Leading airlines including British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and Malaysian Airlines have scaled back their operations since 2008 in part due to concerns related to security of their employees.
“This is as bad as it can get for us,” said a senior official of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) responsible for encouraging foreign carriers to come use Pakistan as a stopover destination. “When it comes to poor law and order, all our efforts fail.”
The attack on Karachi airport on Sunday night was reminiscent of a similar attempt at the Peshawar airport two years back.
Even though no passenger was hurt in the attack in Karachi airport’s terminal, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) lost four of its employees including two senior aircraft engineers.
The national carrier also said that 20 of its flights were delayed or cancelled following the attack.
British Airways, one of the finest airlines that came to Pakistani cities, suspended operation following a deadly attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel in 2008.
“There is a perception that British Airways wasn’t making money but that is not true. All of its flights were packed with passengers when it decided to leave,” said the CAA official.
Junaid Amin, former CAA director general, said security was raised a couple of years back.
“A fence was built around the airport as a nearby slum settlement had expanded over the years and that was worrying,” he said. “Lights were installed at intervals along the fence and a rapid response force was also deputed. But that was four years ago. I can’t say what the situation is these days.”
Only 19 foreign carriers come to Pakistan. Other than the airlines originating from Gulf countries, the only notable carrier is Cathay Pacific, officials say.
Irshad Ghani, an aviation consultant, recalled how even the Middle East carriers stopped flights after the attack on Peshawar airport in 2012.
“The problem was crew layover. Airlines don’t want to risk the lives of their cabin crew and pilots,” he said. “And that happened even when many of the pilots at Emirates and other airlines from Arab region are local.”
The aviation industry has also been hit by a stagnant growth in passenger traffic of around 16 million domestic and international travellers as deteriorating security has undermined all prospects of the allied tourism and hospitality industry.
Air Indus, the newest domestic airline that started operations last year, said four of its flights from Karachi were delayed after the Monday’s attack.
The airline’s Head of Airport Operations Javaid Akhter believes the incident won’t affect the aviation growth in the long run.
“Nothing like this attack has happened since the Pan Am Flight 73 in 1986. Many international carriers had stopped coming to Pakistan after that.”
But he insists that no one should have any doubts about the prospects of growth in the aviation business.
“We started our operation with flights carrying only 35 passengers but we maintained a timely schedule.”
Industry officials believe that the real potential of the Pakistani air passenger market has not been exploited properly. The growth in rural income on the back of rising commodity prices in the past six years makes it possible for thousands more to afford air fare.
The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) said that 20 of its flights were delayed or cancelled following the attack.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 10th, 2014.