KARACHI - The Saudi Arabian aviation authority has granted special permission to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to operate special flights over its request to bring back Pakistani Umrah pilgrims stranded in Madinah and Makkah due to suspension of flight operations to stop the spread of coronavirus. The personal efforts of Air Marshal Arshad Malik bear fruit as PIA has been given special permission for running special flights for stranded Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia till March 18 despite the suspension of international flight operations by Riyadh government. Arshad Malik had personally requested General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) administration to allow PIA for resuming flight operations as hundreds of Umrah pilgrims and other nationals are stranded there. GACA authorities have allowed the national flag-carrier to operate flights for Jeddah and Madinah.

Following the permission, empty planes (ferry flights) will land at Jeddah and Madinah airports till March 18. According to details, the special flights will repatriate stranded Umrah pilgrims and other passengers to Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Sources said that a PIA flight will also bring back 1,800 nationals from Saudi Arabia despite the imposition of the travel ban.

The national flag-carrier had previously operated 22 flights to transport more than 6,000 nationals after 72-hour deadline announced by Riyadh government for a complete halt of international flights to contain the spread of coronavirus.

On March 13, Pakistani pilgrims had sought the government’s assistance in Saudi Arabia as they were stranded due to suspension of flight operations from Gulf countries amid coronavirus fears.

Some pilgrims told a private news channel that neither they could afford to pay rent of hotels nor had money to buy tickets of another airline. On the other hand, the administration of Pakistan Hajj Mission has made no arrangements for the stranded nationals despite the announcement of Riyadh authorities for 72-hour deadline for a complete closure of flight operations.

The pilgrims had appealed to the Pakistani government to provide assistance for their return to the country.

It is pertinent to mention here that General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) in its circular sent to all air carriers operating from and to the airports of Saudi Arabia stated, “A time limit of (72) hours is given to citizen of the Kingdom and current residents holding valid Iqama to return to the Kingdom.”