LAHORE/KARACHI - Airports in the country remained largely paralysed as the strike by PIA employees against government plans to privatise the airline entered its fourth day yesterday.

All foreign and domestic flights of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) were suspended on Friday too, leaving thousands of passengers stranded. They included Pakistani domestic workers trying to fly to the Middle East.

Over 350 flights of national flag carrier have been cancelled during four days of the strike, causing huge loss. Meanwhile, the Airport Security Force has cancelled all entry passes of PIA employees.

Privatisation Commission Chairman Muhammad Zubair yesterday met with the PIA union leaders but no result came out, though both sides agreed to meet again today.

Zubair told a private TV channel that he just met with the protest leaders but did not have any formal dialogue which he said would only be held after resumption of flight operation.

The government is inflexible with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif saying they will not bow down to the protesters holding illegal demonstrations.

The protesters too are not ready to accept anything short of withdrawal of govt decision to corporatise this public entity. But government says it has no other viable option to rehabilitate this white elephant.

Around 700 stranded Umrah pilgrims returned Pakistan through Saudi Airline on Friday under a deal reached between PIA and the Saudi airline.

But PIA Spokesperson Danial Hassan Gillani admitted that the airline has no idea how many of its passengers are stranded worldwide.

“We have no data available on how many and where passengers with confirmed PIA tickets are waiting, because the entire system is shut, servers are down and no booking is being done,” he told foreign media outlet Bloomberg.

Gilani said agreement had been reached with rival airlines to fly all domestic and international passengers. However, customers must pay the difference if the rival company’s fare is greater and the backlog is expected to take days to clear.

But passengers are unwilling to pay inflated fares to Air Blue, Shaheen Air and Etihad Airways as they are as higher as three times the fare of PIA.

Nahid Khan told The Nation that her father has Karachi-Islamabad PIA reservation and when they contacted with a private airline, it refused to accept the ticket saying their management has not allowed them to accept PIA tickets.

When contacted, a PIA spokesman told The Nation that the private airlines have limited capacity and it would be difficult for them to accommodate all such passengers as the national flag carrier operates around 125 flights in a day.

An official of PIA management on condition of anonymity told The Nation that management was unable to establish special counters to facilitate the passengers despite the announcement.

Passengers, who were mostly intending to travel to Saudi Arabia and UAE, held a protest at Lahore airport after their flights were cancelled. The affected travellers included dozens of pilgrims heading for Saudi Arabia.

PIA spokesperson said airline’s international and domestic tickets that are not utilised during strike days would be fully refunded without any additional charges when normal operation resumes.

He said yesterday that around 700 stranded Umrah pilgrims in Jeddah have reached Karachi and Islamabad on two flights of Saudi Airlines on Friday.

On its way back the flight from Karachi carried around 300 Umra pilgrims, while the flight from Islamabad was set to take along nearly 400 pilgrims to Saudi Arabia. Four more similar specially arranged Saudi Airlines flights have been arranged till 8th February, the spokesperson said.

He further said that in view of ongoing strike, ASF has cancelled airport entry passes of all PIA employees at all airports of Pakistan. Passes would be reissued after the strike in consultation with PIA management.

Sajid Gujjar president Peoples Unity of PIA employees confirmed cancellation of passes but Lahore Airport Manager Rashid Husain expressed his ignorance about the issue of security passes.

When contacted, acting Chief Security Officer (CSO) Maj Mukhtiar said “(only) some unnecessary passes have been cancelled” due to security concern and it was not linked with protests.

During the fourth day of strike, all offices of the airline remained closed while its headquarters in Karachi presented a deserted look. Hundreds of employees gathered outside the headquarters and stage a sit-in, demanding withdrawal of the privatisation decision.

"My visa is about to expire in the next three days and I have to reach Dubai before that but here I am stuck at the airport," said Sualma Jia, who works at a hotel in Dubai.

She said she was not even able to retrieve her luggage from the airline. "My future is at stake here, I tried a few private airlines but they have raised their fares by almost three times," she added.

The strike and protests became more intense after two protesters were shot dead earlier this week by unidentified gunmen while several others got wounded in clashes with police and Rangers.

Protest demonstrations were also held by PIA employees in other major cities of the country. PIA employees in Lahore staged a sit-in outside the airport and did not join duty on Friday.

Some passengers were also witnessed at Lahore airport whose luggage was booked and they were not even able to retrieve their luggage from the airline.

“I am employed with a firm in Saudi Arabia and my job is at stake if I failed to report by February 7,” said Shah Zeb Khan standing at Lahore airport.

Another person, Abdul Karim said his father was going to perform Umrah but he could not travel while his visa and hotel stay would expire on specified dates.

The strike continues despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's warning the demonstration was illegal and those taking part could face up to a year in prison under a law that restricts union activity in state-administered sectors.

In December, Islamabad announced it would complete the partial sale of the carrier by July, following years of crushing losses and mismanagement that have battered the airline's reputation.