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GILGIT/RAWALPINDI: Tourists and passengers protested at Skardu airport against a four-hour delay of a PIA Skardu-Islamabad flight on Tuesday, alleging that the airline management had sacrificed customers’ rights to favour Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) officials with an ‘air safari’.

Sources said that the PIA Skardu-bound flight took off from Islamabad airport on Tuesday morning, with top CAA officials and Gilgil-Baltistan senior PML-N member Akbar Taban on board. Usually, when the flight takes off from Islamabad, the boarding passes for the returning flight are issued in Skardu. The normal flight time between the two cities is 45 minutes. On this occasion, however, passengers in Skardu said that it took the aircraft four hours to arrive after they had been issued boarding passes.

Accusing PIA of having delayed the flight to take VIP passengers from Islamabad on an air safari comprising the K2, Nanga Parbat and other mountain peaks, the passengers complained that they were not even allowed to use the washrooms in the PIA waiting room in Skardu.

A video of a woman who had apparently come to Skardu as a tourist started circulating on social media in which she was lashing out at the PIA management. “People are waiting for us in Islamabad,” she is heard saying. “We have been held hostage for the past four hours.”

Meanwhile, a blame game started between CAA Director General Hassan Baig and PIA, with the former denying the use of the aircraft for a ‘private’ tour. He claimed that the air safari had been undertaken at the request of PIA Chief Executive Officer Musharraf Rasool Cyan.

Mr Baig said he had taken notice of the matter and ordered an inquiry, adding that he had written to the PIA CEO a letter seeking clarification on the issue. “If any inconvenience was caused to the passengers, it was PIA’s responsibility,” he said.

On the other hand, PIA spokesperson Mashood Tajwar said that the passengers were basically complaining about basic facilities provided at the airport.

He claimed that flights to Gilgit and Skardu were subject to the weather and this was mentioned on the tickets.

The flight was delayed by two hours from its originating destination and consequently the return flight was delayed, he maintained.

Mr Tajwar said that as per the standard operating procedures, a text message was sent to passengers regarding flight status and this was also sent to the passengers of the returning flight PK-452 Skardu-Islamabad.

The same facts were communicated by PIA staff at the airport, he explained while regretting the inconvenience to the passengers caused by the weather.

The PIA spokesperson said that the airline was committed to expanding tourism in the northern areas, and thus the regular flight time for the Islamabad-Skardu flight had been changed by 15 to 20 minutes; en route, the aircraft flies over the Karakorum range and live commentary is offered on board.

This flight is in no way an inaugural flight, though, as it usually carries guests from travel, entertainment, social and business circles to promote the service, he said.

Referring to the passengers’ complaints regarding the non-availability of facilities such as air-conditioning and washrooms, Mr Tajwar said PIA would work with the authorities concerned.

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2018