Whither is fled the glory and the dream? Once our gold standard, today it competes for the ‘worst airline’ title. PIA had the best and the brightest on ground and in air. Our airhostesses were a smash hit at home and abroad. Not only did they pass the ‘eye candy’ test, but also bubbled with energy, a sense of service, and dignified panache. Glamour, glitz and the lure of jet setting the globe pulled young girls from all corners of Pakistan to serve the airline. It was quite the fashion in the ‘60s to marry a PIA airhostess. From waderas of Sindh to jagirdars of Punjab, cherry-picking the prettiest and carrying her home as trophy wife number two or three was permitted.
Then one day, a killjoy decided to end PIA’s highflying days.
General Zia didn’t approve of the airhostesses’ uniforms. In his bigoted eye, it carried shades of western liberalism that to his benighted mind was un-Islamic and therefore needed dumping! Naheed Azfar, Karachi’s well-known designer caught Zia’s attention. “He told me categorically not to put pockets on the shirt; no dupatta with pallu; no apron; no front open; no deep neck; no straight pajamas; no flashy colours; no kurtas; no long slits; no flimsy material. And of course the shirt must never be body hugging!” Naheed made many trips to the Army House to show the First Couple her creations. Each time they came up with more of the same: “Why can’t you design a kamiz like the one you’re wearing?” an exasperated Zia would tell her. “I don’t want our air hostesses to wear a body hugging uniform.”
Islamisation aside, PIA’s overall rating hit rock bottom. Trashy service, corrupt crew (even drug smuggling), delayed arrivals and departures, worn seats, dirty interiors and awful food all took their toll.
Post Zia, PIA bounced back. In the ‘80s, Karachi hosted Madame Carven (whose Ma Griffe perfume PIA gave complimentary to First Class passengers) and a sizzling catwalk show was organised by PIA. Unfortunately with ‘democracy’ PIA’s turbulence returned. Stuffed with jiyalas during PPP rule, yahoos during PML-N’s reign and barbarians under Musharraf/PML-Q, the airline nosedived, never to rise again. Devalued to a third rate carrier, why then do expatriates like myself continue to fly PIA to Pakistan and back to America? We have ample grounds for a divorce from the national carrier. No, it’s not patriotism. No, it’s not masochism. No, we’re not stuck in an abusive relationship either. To put it simply, it’s dependence. A habit.
I know I can’t get a bulkhead seat in the economy class even if I book a month in advance. Why? Because, assigning the ‘vaunted’ front row seats is tightly controlled by the station manager and his superiors. Should a bureaucrat, politician, family member of the ruling elites or free loaders of PIA management happen to be travelling, these ‘charlies’ get to sit and spread out as much as they like and their girth can wallow in the bulkhead space.
And those abominable toilets. Three or four hours into the flight, they smell foul. The soaps and the colognes go missing, the scum around washbasins and the toilets is… (better to spare you the details). Meanwhile, the waiting line outside the two cubby holes swells up. By the time the plane begins its descent, the teeny weenie toilets, if you can elbow past passengers and service trolleys blocking the aisle, are un-usable. The stink can ‘kill’.
Surely PIA can deodorise the toilets, keeping them clean and well stocked with soap, cologne, etc. Is it too much to ask? Booked for Islamabad, perforce you have to end your journey in Lahore. On an economy class ticket, one is put up in hotels, often seedy, for the night. By the time you drag your aching body to the hotel room and into bed, it’s time to get up, shower, breakfast and leave for the airport to catch the early morning flight for the capital, only to be informed that the thick fog has indefinitely delayed the departure.
A mere 13-hour direct flight ends up as a 40-hour ordeal. From JFK when you board the plane (if the flight is not delayed!) and reach Islamabad, you’ve seen two afternoons, two sunrises and two sunsets, while in your bloated stomach sit countless dregs of snacks, lunches, dinners and breakfasts, not to mention gallons of coffee, tea and cold drinks. And still I fly PIA!