According to sources privy to the permissions process given to airlines within government circles, there appears to be a strong bent among some key government officials, including two powerful figures of the cabinet, towards a certain Persian Gulf carrier. This comes at the cost of sidelining Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), especially when it came to repatriating stranded Pakistanis from the United States of America and a few other newly listed destinations.
Qatar Airways with its reputation of strong-arming any negotiation and always getting full support from its oil- and gas-rich emirate holds a special stature in Pakistan too: with strong ties between both the governments and a special relationship between the Prime Minister of Pakistan and the Emir of Qatar. Sources claim that even the foreign office becomes a party to the flight permissions being granted.
On the 28th of March, PIA got permission to fly stranded citizens from the USA to Pakistan but the next day, the Government of Pakistan granted rights to Qatar Airways to do the same. This raised concerns over whether the government felt that the national carrier was not fit for this task.
While PIA is charging $2,000 for a flight from the USA to Pakistan, Qatar Airways is reportedly charging $3,200 for the same flight and up to $10,000 for a business-class seat.
This is despite the fact that PIA has only received specific rights from both the governments of the USA and Pakistan to bring back stranded Pakistanis from the USA. These rights do not allow the national carrier to take any passengers to the USA. But the Qatar Airways flight will be allowed to fly passengers both ways – which will make it more financially feasible for the airline, putting PIA at a serious disadvantage.
Sources suggest that nearly 1,300 stranded Pakistanis have expressed the desire to be repatriated to Pakistan to the various diplomatic missions of the country in the US. However there are estimates the number is much higher.
PIA has been given permission to fly 12 flights from the USA, which have a maximum capacity to bring back 3,800 people from the USA. But sources within PIA allege that the permissions given to Qatar Airways on the very next day as PIA have made the latter’s flights less viable.
Qatar Airways has also been given special permission to fly flights from Doha to various airports of Pakistan: to and from Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, in an unprecedented move. These flights will commence from 3-10 May.
There are also concerns as to why National Command and Operations (NCOC) is setting the fares of PIA but not of Qatar Airways for the same flights. A source familiar with the situation raised the question, “Why is the government promoting a foreign airline when PIA is fully equipped to repatriate stranded Pakistanis across the world?”
Previously, the British High Commission also chose Qatar Airways over PIA for special flights to repatriate stranded British citizens in Pakistan, after an extraordinary deal offered by Qatar Airways that it will get special permissions for its planes to conduct the operation – which it did.
Zulfi Bukhari, the Minister for Overseas Pakistanis, was asked for comment numerous times but he did not respond to requests for comment as of the filing of this story.