KARACHI: Amid a marked improvement in the relationship between Pakistan and the US, ahead of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington next week, Islamabad has geared up to take direct flights to New York for the first time in the country’s history.
“US security officials visited the Islamabad airport and expressed concern over direct flights to the US, which has been addressed,” revealed Federal Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan at a press conference at the SQMS Auditorium, Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) headquarters on Thursday.
“Flights are expected to begin after the upcoming prime minister’s visit to the US,” he said.
In October 2017, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) had closed flights to New York via Manchester.
“Operating the entire long flight with a stopover was not economically viable for the airline, therefore, we decided to close the route,” said PIA spokesperson Mashhood Tajwar.
In early 2006, PIA acquired the world’s longest range commercial airliner Boeing 777-200LR, according to the Boeing website. On February 25, 2006, the aircraft flew to Manchester, England where it picked passengers before flying to Islamabad.
Following this, PIA started its longest flight from Karachi to Toronto, which is still in operation. However, the country’s airlines could not start direct flights to the US as Washington had security concerns.
The US demanded that Pakistan flights come via the transit destinations it trusted like Manchester or any destination in Europe for transit security checks.
“Boeing 777-200LR is the premium aircraft for long-haul flights and if operated on short routes, it does not yield desired results,” said the spokesperson.
When a flight is operated through a transit destination, it bears an additional cost as it has to pay extra airport charges and ground-handling charges. One flight is counted as one engine cycle and after a particular number of flights the aircraft goes for routine checks, which is another liability.
“We have developed a business plan for PIA, which the prime minister has approved,” said the aviation minister. “According to the plan, we are going to increase PIA’s fleet from the current 31 to 45 aircraft.”
Every year, three to four aircraft would be inducted into the fleet and by 2025 the national carrier would have 45 aircraft, he said. All of the aircraft will be purchased instead of taking them on dry or wet lease, which has been the practice in recent years.
The minister said the authorities were considering talking to PIA employees about the voluntary separation scheme as the national airline was over-staffed. The airline has 500 employees for one airplane while worldwide the number is hundred employees per plane.
Answering a query about sky-high domestic airfares, despite huge concessions from the PCAA to airlines, the minister said the aviation authority would develop a price-checking system for domestic air tickets. “The system will take into account the average price for the whole year to gauge whether any airline is manipulating prices extraordinarily.”
Recently, Pakistan and India both partially closed their airspaces for commercial flights following escalation in tensions between the two neighbouring countries. The minister shared that during that period, the PCAA suffered a loss of over Rs8 billion while Indian airlines borne double the loss.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2019.