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!


Comments are closed.

Comments (18)

Mohammad Syed Husain
December 23, 2012 6:56 pm
The writer is right about the cabin service standards in the airline at present, which leave much to be desired. However, fog is a phenomenon prevailing in Lahore and Islamabad at this time of the year and was one of the the causes of Air Blue crash in the Margalla Hills a while back. It is not been given a chance now and there seems to be a strong lobby bent on discrediting it but perhaps the most striking is the award or anticipated grant of most domestic stations to foreign airlines, even Sialkot The various political governments and their exploitation of the airline has been covered here. PIA is/was a cash cow milked thoroughly by also our ex-armed forces personnel who came here on secondment or afer retirement. I had earlier written that the Canadian Prime Minister (it came to that level from the pressure brought on) didn't budge from granting increase in flights and stations in Canada to Emirates Airlines with their new Airbus A380 in order to protect Air Canada. This is what patriotism is. Here in Pakistan we are bent on selling the whole country, security also.
December 23, 2012 6:31 pm
Anjum, I do not see any rational foundation for your cynicism of Pakistani hostesses wearing Pakistani clothes while working for a Pakistani airline. However, bad service is another matter. I have not had an exceptionally bad experience with PIA, although I agree that it needs to improve a great deal. On the other hand, I have never had a good experience with American Airlines. The reputed top airlines in America have been rated among the worst a number of times. My experience is that some of the people on PIA flights are among the best, while some others are among the worst, which is not unlike most other airlines. I think PIA needs to achieve excellence once again on its own merit. The airline is Pakistan's national carrier, and by that token should strive to bring pride to the nation. To help PIA achieve that, those who choose PIA must also show the right attitudes on PIA flights. We all know that our people on PIA flights do not have the same attitudes as they do on, say, the British Airways, American Airlines, Emirates, and the like. And despite timid and excessively polite attitudes on these airlines, we still don't get the treatment we deserve. Even bigoted remarks from these folks go. I think if we behaved as well on PIA flights as we do on other nations' airlines we would get far better pampering.
December 23, 2012 5:02 pm
Nostalgia is not the as it used to be.
December 23, 2012 11:07 am
Have you used the economy class Emirates toilets recently- much worse than PIA's. And Emirate crew scores my vote for being the worst.
December 23, 2012 11:00 am
Great read.
December 23, 2012 3:16 pm
You are generalising too much. The flights you have experienced must be catering predominantly to passengers to and from a few particular destinations. They are uncontrolable. I do not wish to be racist but it is fact that some part of this world unfortunately lag behind in civil discourse as is understood in 2012.
December 23, 2012 12:03 pm
PIA's story is the story of Pakistan. A wonderful country laid to waste by nepotism, corruption, mismanagement and extremism.
December 23, 2012 2:08 pm
Yes Emirates crews aren't exactly very friendly, especially to Subcontinent-bound passengers. One may argue that they deal with the clientele on a sector-by-sector basis, but when their trunk routes are to the Subcontinent, they better start showing some courtesy. I was myself handed over a kid's meal by an uninterested flight steward once and only when his colleague saw it later, did she swap it! And I am over 30. In my view, if one is to take an alternative to PIA, try Qatar or Turkish, if you haven't already.
Karachi Wala
December 23, 2012 2:13 pm
Have you seen the class of the air passenger these days?
December 23, 2012 2:19 pm
A flight with PIA is always shrouded in mystery. From ground crew demanding a "gift" to give one a seat in Y class (highest economy fare) during peak season travel from Karachi-Toronto, to insufficient quantities of substandard food served during ultra long haul flights, to unscheduled change of plane on a stopover (requiring immigration and baggage claim in a different city from your destination i.e. North America-Karachi, plane lands in Lahore and passengers informed after much confusion to pass through immigration, collect bags, and check in at the domestic terminal, where there is further confusion about the flight number and departure time.) I agree that the entire organization needs a shake up. Till the jiyalas rule the ailing company, it is very difficult to turn it around. With highly skilled management professionals from quality institutions like LUMS, IBA and other top local universities readily available, PIA needs to get a sincere head who recruits a team dedicated to bring the airline around and make it a viable entity - and this can be done. The "green tails" (a highly successful and consistent brand identity) that were once a source of pride to Pakistan, can be back again. It just needs someone sincere to Pakistan to take charge of affairs.
December 23, 2012 3:47 pm
I always found crew very professional and never have trouble , other than usual travel glitches . In fact my hat off for the air hostess for dealing with rudest lof passengers. I met a college student who told me PIA have a worst service and crew is very impolite . I asked him where he traveled , he told he never flew but he know.
December 23, 2012 8:07 pm
Every time I travel on PIA from Toronto to Karachi, I always end up paying the extra PIA costs. Here are two scenarios 1. Once PIA fligth delayed by more than 6 hours leaving Karachi landed obviously 6 hours late. My via rail tickets for 3 from Toronto to Ottawa went to waste. PIA would not reimburse let alone aplogize for my loss. 2. Next trip back from Karachi, bags damaged by PIA. You guessed it, I have never heard back from PIA customer service after filing a complaint. I have not even mentioned the service and bathrooms, well I try to not to eat so no need to use. Good thing about my trips is I loose bit of weight by the time I land either in Karachi or Toronto. Their bus service from Montreal, Ottawa to Toronto would have been a good idea if it actually stopped in Ottawa and not 45 minutes away near 401. After all of this I will still prefer PIA and hope that they would get their act together.
December 23, 2012 9:12 pm
Notice it is the Pakistan in or out bound flights that have the toilet stories. Also did you know that the worse crew are given this route .. Dubai - Pakistan!
December 23, 2012 9:59 pm
Its understandable that PIA is going through tough times and may not be the best but its still better than other airlines such as american eagle and Indian airlines. Some airlines are clean but do not povide services. I have noticed that we as Pakistanis are too demanding sometimes. I have been travelling on American Airlines but I do not get the same kind of service that i get on PIA. Cleanliness, yes is an issue other than that services are the same everywhere or worst. Flight delays are the same in US specially in busy airports.
December 24, 2012 12:22 am
Why in the world Pakistan and India are still having flag bearing national carrier? Is that some sort of pride. Both airlines are the worst in world and cost both countries billion$ in tax payers hard earned money. USA, Canada and Europe got ride of these termite national carries a long ago. It is time for Sub-continent to follow the suites.
December 24, 2012 12:32 am
Great article - so agree, no idea why I still prefer PIA..... Maybe its just thr devil that you know.......
A. Khan
December 24, 2012 2:23 am
Should have read the full article before posting. Apologies as you did point out the other factors.
kamaljit Singh
December 24, 2012 2:53 am
I am a frequent flier between Americas and Asia, I rate the Emirates among the top three for timings , food and personal care.
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