The PIA has been in serious crisis for the past three decades and with the passage of time the situation has only worsened. In the 80s, (the late) Dr Mehboobul Haq was the minister for finance and planning development when at a ceremony in Lahore he said PIA stands for ‘Perhaps I Arrive’. Then explaining that there was no one to take action on passengers’ complaints, he said, PIA means ‘Please Inform Allah’.

These memories and multiple subsequent bitter personal experiences were still fresh in my mind when I decided to go to Saudi Arabia by the national carrier to perform Umra. This, however, should not be taken to mean that the writer is among the ‘great people’ the PIA flies with.

The immigration formalities at the airport were completed quite easily. The staff manning the counters was efficient and cooperative. However, there were no PIA tags available for the hand baggage. The ASF people were telling the passengers that they can use tags of the rival airlines for the baggage and that the suggested alternative would not mean violation of the procedure. “These tags are just a formality. It won’t make any difference which airline’s tags you are using,” said the lady who was supposed to stamp the tags for final clearance.

Although the passengers did what they were told to do, it was rather difficult for many to accept that it was just a formality and that tags of one airline could also be used for the passengers of the other.

In the departure lounge, the ‘final announcement’ for boarding on flight ‘ABC’ was repeated umpteen times. There is no harm in repeating an announcement for the convenience of passengers, but every such announcement cannot be called ‘final’.

The writer will not like to mention that the prices of items at the airport are several times higher than in the market. That is seen so everywhere in the world.

A Boeing 747 was to take the passengers from Lahore to Madina. The temperature inside the plane was the same as outside – 43C. Perhaps, the airline was preparing the passengers for the temperatures they would experience in Saudi Arabia.

Just imagine the frustration of those hit by long hours of loadshedding at home sitting in an ‘oven’ called Jumbo 747. “We are feeling quite at home,” said some of them while hugging their fellow pilgrims, sarcasm clearly visible on their faces.

The PIA has three such planes operational at present. The fourth is grounded.

The total PIA fleet comprises some three dozen aircraft, ten of them grounded for various reasons. The airline has eight B-777 and an equal number of A-310 planes. Five are ATR and one B-737.

Because of the declining standards of the national carrier, passengers prefer to go by other airlines, as a result of which the PIA’s financial losses are going up. The successive governments have failed to set the situation right. And it will be a challenge for the PML-N government to help the PIA regain its lost glory.

The government continues to enhance fares for the Umra and Haj pilgrims every now and then. But the service they are provided is simply pathetic.

On board, the crew told the passengers that the air-conditioning system would work only after the Jumbo was airborne. They were right. Everybody in the flight, including the crew, was sweating. The situation remained the same till at least half an hour after the plane took off. The patience of the Umra pilgrims was being fully tested.

We were told that the plane has the capacity for 500 plus passengers, but there were only 263 on board, mainly because of the visa cuts imposed by Saudi authorities on account of the ongoing expansion of ‘mataf’, the area where ‘tawaf’ is performed.

Some said that the delay in issuance of passports was also an important reason for below-capacity flights. (Lately, the applicants are getting their passports in time and the backlog is about to be cleared).

Though unbelievable, it became difficult for the passengers at the rear end to retain their seats because of the foul smells from the nearby toilets. One by one, almost all passengers ‘migrated’ to other empty seats in the front.

A steward on duty said these smells had killed the smelling capacity of the staff and they no longer take it as a problem. He said with the passage of time, these smells had become a routine for them.

The aircraft could be compared to a bus plying on rural routes of which everything rings except the horn.

Only B-Class Urdu and English language newspapers were there for the passengers. But no one could have a look at the newspapers because all lights could either be switched on or off at one time. Switching on one light meant switching on all lights, even for those seats where they were not needed. And switching off one light meant plunging the entire flight into darkness. The only lights which were delinked from the system were ‘No smoking signs’.

The lights meant for calling the crew for any service were dysfunctional.

It was in such a situation that the flight landed at the Madina airport.

Checking of passengers at the Madina airport, as also at other airports in the kingdom, has been toughened. Biometric system has been introduced, after which thorough checking of just one person may take from five to 10 minutes.

To make sure that the pilgrims stay in the hotels mentioned in their agreements, only the Saudis, not foreigners, are allowed to transport them to their destinations. Representatives of the designated companies collect passports of all incoming passengers to obviate the possibility of any of them slipping away. Such people are called by the Saudis as ‘khargosh’, or hare, which has the capability to hide somewhere within no time. The pilgrims’ documents are returned to them only when they are about to go back to their respective countries.

Unlike the past, acquiring a SIM is now not very easy. While previously, sweepers and cleaners at the airport would sell SIMs with balance equal to the face value of the piece, the situation is a bit different now. Now a SIM with some 35 Riyals balance sells for 50 Riyals. And a SIM available for 25 Riyals will have 15 Riyals’ balance. This profit ratio is very high and it goes into the pockets of individuals, not the government.

Various shops also sell the SIMs but their profit margin is also the same.

A large number of young Saudis sell SIMs to earn livelihood.

–(TO BE CONTINUED)