When it comes to ‘goof-ups’ our national carrier really does take the biscuit and, while this scribe long since vowed never to sound off about PIA again - readers already having digested more on the subject than is wise for anyone’s health – this episode is, as I sit shivering in Kabul, one that I just have to narrate.

The PIA flight, both to and from Kabul and Islamabad, is notorious for its always very politely explained delays and, with heavy snow bringing life to a standstill in the Afghan capital, a delay, even a complete cancellation of a return flight to Pakistan, was only to be expected but it was the way that the airline handled, or more truthfully, failed to handle, the resultant mess caused by cancellation, that needs to and will be highlighted here.

The 40 minute flight, costing an outrageous Rs 42,491 economy class return or Rs 26,900 one way which surely makes it one of the costliest short hops in existence, is not exactly comfortable on the best of days as, despite the spectacularly majestic scenery which literally does take ones breath away, the haphazard service of often lackluster staff, the female flight attendants being far less devoted to their duties than the males and the food, although it usually defies this description, inedible in the extreme, combine to spoil what should be an awesome experience no matter how often one flies this challenging route.

The pilots, it must be said, are, however, first class and deserve medals for excellent handling of what is, by any accounts, an extremely difficult flight-path over high mountains where thermals and air-pockets have the potential to create absolute havoc and most of them happily provide an informative guide to the areas flown over too but, unfortunately, it is the ground staff at the Kabul end, who, especially when under duress, let the side down very badly indeed with the events so recently and personally experienced, serving as a cautionary warning to all.

Non-arrival at the airport to book in could result in complete loss of ticket validity, therefore, battling through heavy snow to book in on time, was an absolute must, plus, there was always the outside chance of a miracle occurring and, if the snow stopped falling, a remote possibility of the flight taking off after all. On arriving at the airport though, hopes of the latter were immediately dashed when the attentive Afghan security guard on duty between the airport entrance building and the terminal proper, carefully instructed me to report to Arianna Airlines  whose ‘on premises’ office is, apparently and under such circumstances, used by PIA as well. In the complete absence of any PIA staff whatsoever, the Arianna Airlines gentleman made a number of phone calls, showed a male passenger and myself to comfortable seats in the warmth, it was biting cold outside, served us with tea and traditional Afghan sweets, requesting us to wait until he had established the P.I.A flight status and exactly what must be done.

Two hours later, the Arianna gentleman who was exactly this and who had persistently, in the absence of PIA staff, phoned for instructions, explained that we must report to the PIA office in the Wazir Akbar Khan district of the city where our plight, and the plight of fellow passengers, would be resolved so, fighting through increasingly deep snow, off we went, at our own cost of course, to be told, by a pleasant young man, that there would be no flight the following day but that we could, weather permitting, fly the day after that. We, obviously, accepted the situation but were completely dumfounded by what happened next.

Upon enquiring what arrangements had been made by the airline for passenger accommodation and meals during this enforced two nights delay, we were told – ‘None’ as the plight of stranded passengers is not the airlines responsibility and, besides this, the PIA, office in Kabul is…..wait for it…’Not official’!

A second young man confirmed this and upon being asked if we were expected to sleep, with empty stomachs, out in the snow, pointed us in the direction of a glassed off office where the man behind the desk was in deep conversation with a woman sitting opposite. He said that he was in charge of financial matters, refused to provide his name, that the situation was nothing to do with him and that the Station Manager was, due to the Kabul airport closure, stranded in Kandahar whereupon we requested that he be phoned for instructions. Personally explaining our plight to him, he bemoaned his own flight cancellation, said that it was not P.I.A’s responsibility to do anything other than issue new tickets, then either the line dropped or he hung up, the latter is suspected. He did, however and after having time to realize that he was talking to ‘the Press’, call back a few minutes later, tell us to speak to his deputy, the lady in the office who had, despite hearing every word, remained silent, who would arrange hotel accommodation for us. She blankly refused, actually sniggering at our obvious discomfort and that, readers, was that!

PIA passengers are not, it appears, the airlines responsibility at all and can, in the depths of a Central Asian winter and in the middle of a war zone, go freeze to death in the snow and, unless they are lucky enough to have good friends to fall back on, this is exactly what would happen!

The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.    Email: zahrahnasir@hotmail.com