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Pakistan's National Airline Deals with Passenger Backlog After Ash Cloud Delays

  • Sean Maroney

Officials with Pakistan's national airline, PIA, say they are working to overcome a backlog of thousands of passengers delayed since a cloud of volcanic ash closed much of the airspace across Europe.

Manzoor Hussain is among the hundreds of passengers who were able to leave on the first Pakistan International Airlines flight to the United Kingdom since Iceland's volcanic eruption last week. He spoke to reporters at the airport in Pakistan's southern coastal city of Karachi before his flight late Wednesday.

"I was stuck in Pakistan for the past five or six days. It's been very problematic for me because of work and family, and it's made loads of disruptions to our schedule," Hussain said.

His family was in Pakistan for a wedding two weeks ago. They were supposed to leave Sunday, but were unable due to flight delays. PIA's spokesman Sultan Hassan tells VOA that the Hussains are among the up to 17,000 travelers backlogged on PIA flights, which frequently run through European airspace. He says the recent shutdown of commercial aviation is worse than the shutdown following the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

"I think this was a worse scenario. I don't think such a standstill we have experienced before," Hussain adds.

He says that during the recent crisis, PIA provided all it could for passengers en route to their destinations, including providing accommodations for passengers stranded in Paris.

"All these passengers, around 320, were for New York. Seventy were senior citizens, and there were about 16 infants," Hassan said. "And for these infants we really had to even provide diapers and milk."

Hassan says PIA now is doing everything it can to increase its number of flights and accommodate more passengers. But he says nothing can be done for the perishable goods meant for transport on PIA flights that have been lost after sitting in storage in Karachi. Hassan estimates that during the crisis, PIA suffered $2 million a day in losses.

Ashfaq Ahmad is an economist and former advisor to Pakistan's Finance Ministry. He tells VOA that the natural disaster could not have happened at a worse time for Pakistan. Ahmad says that due to high oil prices and overstaffing, PIA already has been receiving assistance from the government. He says the Pakistani government most likely will pay for PIA's recent losses.

"PIA is now dependent totally on the Ministry of Finance to keep this airline floating," said Ahmad. "If they don't get injections or oxygen from the Ministry of Finance, then this patient would die."

And for passengers, such as Manzoor Hussain and his family, the situation has cost them time they can never get back.