Last Thursday, a PIA spokesperson confirmed that the US Department of Transportation had granted it permission for direct flights to the US. This resulted from a letter written by PIA’s CEO Air Marshal Arshad Malik, who requested a change of policy for these unprecedented times. The maiden flight will fly from Islamabad on 12 May, making its way non-stop to Washington and back.
PIA will use its Boeing 777-240LRs to operate these charter flights to the US; the only aircraft in its fleet that is eligible. However, this decision comes with a list of prerequisites that PIA will need to fulfil before its aircraft can step foot in the country. These include prior notification to the transportation department of routes that the flight will operate on, security clearance for flights departing from outside Pakistan, and compliance with the rules set forth by local US authorities (FAA) and standards laid by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
In the past, PIA was barred from making direct flights to the US amid security concerns. But whether this move will open a future direct route to the US is still unclear. For now, the decision will aid in the rescue efforts.
Massive Repatriation Operation
Direct flights to the US are part of Pakistan’s massive repatriation program to bring back thousands of Pakistanis stuck overseas. So far, around 15 000 nationals have returned, leaving thousands more awaiting pickup. This number is still a fraction of the total 60 000 registered applicants for the charter flights program. PIA right now is in phase two of the program and aims to bring home 20 000 people in the coming days.
A large proportion of the stranded citizens are in the Gulf countries and regional operators like Emirates, Qatar Airways and Fly Dubai are assisting PIA in these flights. In its latest update, the government has added more destinations in the charter flights schedule, including Amsterdam and Germany.
Cause for Concern?
A local news outlet reported yesterday that 401 incoming passengers from 15 flights to Karachi had tested positive for the coronavirus; a troubling statistic for the authorities. Keep in mind that Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) has already issued SOPs for travellers on repatriation flights and taken measures to prevent the spread at its airports.
However, airport managements are struggling to contain the spread to the ground staff, aircrew and admins. Last week, Jinnah International Airport’s (Karachi) manager and COO Imran Khan became infected; now quarantined with ten other officials.
Despite efforts made by the government, many nationals — in particular students—remain helpless. Several factors like government regulations and closed routes are hindering the rescue process. National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf commented:
The PIA still does not have access to many of 88 countries where our citizens are stranded. But we are making alternative arrangements to bring them back
Pakistanis who find themselves in this situation will need to wait it out until involved members can work out arrangements for special flights.
What are your thoughts on PIA’s rescue plans?