RAWALPINDI/ KARACHI/ LAHORE/PESHAWAR:
Hajra Ali from Pakpattan city was waiting at Allama Iqbal International Airport, Lahore on February 2 with her boarding pass tightly clutched in her hand. She was eager to embark on her maiden journey to the United Arab Emirates where she was supposed to join a Dubai-based company the very next day. Then she noticed some unusual activity at the airport.
"PIA flights were operating normally so I sent my family back to Pakpattan. We had come to the airport using public transport," she told The Express Tribune. "Suddenly, however, the PIA staff got up from their seats and left the building, leaving passengers in a state of flux. No one was there to guide us. Eventually, I called my parents and asked them to take me home."
Like Hajra, several labourers travelling to the UAE or Saudi Arabia for work were unable to make it to their destinations. Most were also unable to get refunds on their tickets and had to cancel or postpone their travel plans. Others, however, are looking at alternative arrangements to make it to their destinations.
Pakistan Railways, to which many are looking as an alternative for domestic travel, has announced to increase the number of coaches in its three main express trains, Karachi Express, Business Express and its flagship Green Line to accommodate the surge in passengers.
"We have a number of coaches available to cater to these passengers. We are monitoring which stations we need them for," said Railways General Manager Javed Anwar. "We are ensuring punctuality of trains to avoid any inconvenience for passengers."
In Peshawar, suspension of flights has impacted passengers hailing from the tribal areas and other far-flung districts of K-P the most. With no airport in their hometowns, they made their way to Peshawar by road, only to find out the flights they were supposed to embark on are no longer taking off.
Cancellation of domestic flights to Karachi, Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan forced them to either return home or use buses.
As a result, Lahore Bus Stand was buzzing with activity as passengers arrived in droves to catch a bus to their intended destinations. "We booked [airplane] tickets for Karachi but after arriving at Bacha Khan Airport, Peshawar learnt that PIA flights had been suspended," said Ameer Khan Wazir, a resident of Orakzai Agency, who spent the night at a hotel in Khyber Bazaar.
On the other hand, leaders from the ruling coalition in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, including Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq, met protesting PIA employees and assured them of support.
In Rawalpindi, most PIA passengers did not turn up at Benazir Bhutto International Airport on Thursday, knowing that their flights had been cancelled. The strike has resulted in the cancellation of 50 international and domestic flights from the federal capital. A PIA official, however, said some domestic passengers with confirmed tickets were being accommodated in Airblue and Shaheen airlines, while talks were under way with international airlines for destinations outside Pakistan.
Arif Mumtaz, who runs a rent-a-car business, said several passengers were rushing to the Daewoo Bus Terminal to go to Lahore and Karachi.
In Karachi, Railways reservation supervisor at Cantt station, Mohammad Jumman said the number of passengers travelling by train has increased by 20 to 25% due to the protest.
Similarly, bus stands also witnessed a surge in traffic. A Daewoo representative said the long weekend on account of Kashmir Day along with the protest had increased their sales by 15%.
Taking advantage of PIA's suspension of flights, airfares of other domestic carriers touched new heights. "Private airlines increased their fares by more than 200% after February 1," said FPCCI Aviation Committee Chairman Yahya Polani. "Fares have come down [since Feb 1], but they are still about 100% more than the days when PIA was fully operational."
Pakistan Railways, on the other hand, managed to earn an extra Rs6 million on Wednesday as several air passengers switched their mode of transport, said PR Senior General Manager Javed Anwar.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2016.
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