Home Views & Opinions PIA’s exorbitant fares to the returning expats COVID-19 pandemic

PIA’s exorbitant fares to the returning expats COVID-19 pandemic

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During the globally prevailing COVID-19 environment, Pakistan leadership has completely neglected one of country’s major constituents that contributes enormous revenues and play a lifeline role for making the “balance of payments” by staying in the background. They are the expatriates or the “Overseas Pakistanis” who are living and working in the foreign countries. By some estimates, currently there are over 9 million Pakistanis who are living abroad. Out of this total, about 4.7 million (making about 49%) are living in the Middle East (majority in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman). The UK makes the major country in Europe where about 1.4 million Pakistanis are residing. The USA has just over a half a million Pakistan origin population.
The expatriates contribute about 5% of the GDP that translates into about US$20 billion, which is about the same amount as the total export value of the country. This group of Pakistanis are rarely mentioned by any government except when there is a financial crisis. Like end of the last year, when the country was at the brink of default and was tethering for servicing its debt obligations to its multilateral lenders, like the IMF, World Bank, etc. Similarly, just a few weeks ago, PM Imran Khan appealed to the overseas Pakistanis to donate generously to fight against the COVID-19 and to provide livelihoods to the poor and needy fellows who have lost their sources of income due to the so called “lockdowns”!
The irony of the appeal is that there are a significant number of the expats who need Prime Minister’s utmost attention and support to repatriate back home or to fly back to their adopted countries. Under the so-called “lockdowns”, all the international flights (including the domestic) have been suspended as the airports are closed since last couple of months.
After many appeals to the local Consulates and Embassies, there is some movement in bringing back home the stranded Pakistanis from the Middle East and the GCC region. Additionally, there is another group of the overseas Pakistani expatriates who are stranded in Pakistan since their arrivals to visiting their families or on some business trips but due to the start of the “lockdowns”, their flights have been cancelled multiple times. Since then (almost two months), they have been appealing to various government agencies and departments to get their assistance to go back to their countries of current residences and to resume their duties at work. But as usual, their repeated requests have not been addressed by anyone, except advised to check with the airlines.
Now, after some long frustration and miseries, Pakistan government has started allowing some special flights. However, in most of the cases, the national carrier, PIA has monopoly as this is the only airline allowed to fly in and out of Pakistan for most of the destinations. Because of the dire needs by the stranded Pakistanis, PIA is taking full advantage of the opportunity by charging them an exorbitant amount for the one-way tickets. In many cases, the passengers already have their return tickets on PIA for the flights that have been cancelled due to the airport’s closures. But they have been told that those tickets cannot be used on these flights and they must buy new tickets if they want to fly back soon! These are the same group of people, called expatriates, who send their hard earned money back to Pakistan that assists the government in making the balance of payments, but when they need help from their country officials, they are left at the mercy of the selfish and self-centered enterprises, like PIA. The round-trip tickets that will usually cost $1200 to $1500, PIA is charging thousands of dollars more ($2,500-$3,500) just for the ONE-WAY flights. As a good will gesture and to show support to the expatriate community, Prime Minister should instruct PIA to offer deeply discounted fares, if not completely free. This is just once in a lifetime opportunity for the Prime Minister and the national carrier to help relieving the travel costs of the stranded expatriates by offering them highly subsidized tickets during these difficult times. Otherwise, there is no difference between a trader who takes the advantage of the opportunity and raises the prices manifolds than the normal prices. As we all know, this happens every year during Ramadan when the basic essential commodity prices are skyrocketed without any reason!
To some estimates, there are about 60,000 Pakistanis who are waiting to be repatriated back to Pakistan and several thousand expatriates still stranded in their home country (Pakistan) waiting for the flights to go back to their current residing countries, mostly Europe and North America. By these exorbitant charges, PIA will be making some good money to cover its losses, knowing well that the price gouging is not a particularly good way to make up the deficit in their revenues that is caused by their mismanagement of the airline!! Under the very same conditions, other countries are assisting their expatriates in visa renewals, updating with the COVID-19 conditions on the ground, and arranging charter flights at reasonable costs, generally not too far from the normal ticket prices. As of May 14, there have been few PIA flights that have already started transporting the expatriates at the costs as mentioned earlier.
Now is the last chance for the Prime Minister to take notice of the grossly unfair treatment by the national carrier (PIA) offered to the fellow countrymen living abroad and proudly representing Pakistan as the everyday life ambassador of the country. These Pakistanis are the backbone of the national budget (~45%) and lifeline for desperately needed hard currency, particularly during the balance of payments crisis by remitting about $20 billion of their hard-earned money, year after year. And in return, they never ask for anything but their recognition and in times of needs they ask assistance, just like right now!