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Thousands were stranded due to Pakistan's airspace closures. I was one of them

It is good to finally be able to return.
Updated Mar 05, 2019 11:55am

An estimated 25,000 passengers were affected by the closure of Pakistan’s airspace last week as a result of tensions between Pakistan and India. I was one of them.

The closure left me stranded at the Paris airport for two days. I left New York for Karachi on Wednesday, and only stepped out of Jinnah International on Sunday.

Filled with uncertainty, twists and Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), this is the story of my four-day-long journey back home.

NEW YORK, Wednesday

2:45am

My phone buzzes but I know it’s not time to wake up yet. I have set an alarm for 10am. My flight back to Karachi is at 5:05pm.

Who’s disturbing me at this hour?

I check my phone, still half asleep. It’s one of my friends.

“What are you going to do now?”

Having recently graduated I assume it is the usual question about my future plans. I ignore it and go back to sleep.

7am

Something doesn’t feel right. I wake up and check my phone again. There are more messages.

“Airport’s closed. What’s the scene now?”

I start scrolling through the news. Pakistan has closed its airspace and it won’t be open till Thursday at midnight.

Wait, what?

Actually that’s not so bad… By the time I will arrive in Abu Dhabi, Jinnah International should be opening back up. I should just head to JFK as planned.

The exchange visa I was studying on is expiring. And I surely do not want to overstay. Besides, if things are really bad, American Airlines will not let me board.

Soon, I’m on the phone, giving my mother the same spiel.

10am

I am having breakfast with my best friend one last time in his Brooklyn apartment. But instead of reminiscing, we are discussing war, Pakistan, India and the airspace closure.

"If nothing else I’ll get a story out of this," I joke.

2pm

I am at the gate ready to board my flight. I’ve shown up unusually early in case there are any problems, but it seems like things are already looking up back home.

News websites, including Dawn, are carrying a tweet from an unofficial CAA Pakistan account, stating that the airspace has already been partially opened.

PARIS, Thursday

6:50am

I connect to the WiFi at the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Before I can check the news, an email notification pops up on my phone. It's from Etihad Airways.

"Your Etihad Airways flight has been cancelled."

Wait, what? Cancelled? Not delayed?

I do some more reading. The tweet regarding the partial restoration of commercial aviation has been deleted.

Well, this cannot be good. I should book a flight for Karachi with the Etihad staff as soon as they get here. Doing it after reaching Abu Dhabi will be a hassle; surely there must be a backlog of passengers already waiting there.

8:15am

Two Etihad staffers are setting up to open the check-in counters. I approach them. One of them seems to have been expecting me.

"Mr Naveed?"

"Yes."

She explains to me that the airspace has been closed and I cannot leave Paris. She then scans my passport.

"You booked your flight with American Airlines?"

"Yes, New York to Paris with American, and then Etihad."

She calls staffers at the American Airlines counter and sends me to them.

At the American Airlines counter, a staffer asks if I want to be sent back to the US. I say that I cannot re-enter as my visa has expired. He asks if I have a Schengen visa. I tell him I do not.

I then tell him that I would much rather go to Abu Dhabi and wait. He speaks to his colleagues at the Etihad counter and sends me back.

9:30am

The business class passengers are already boarding the flight. I'm being told that I cannot go to Abu Dhabi unless the Karachi airspace is open.

A new staffer from Etihad is dealing with me now. She seems eager to help.

"Can I be sent to Abu Dhabi at least? Please change my flight. I’ll buy another flight from Abu Dhabi at my own expense if I have to."

She calls her colleagues in Abu Dhabi and explains my situation. They put her on hold. By now, final boarding call announcements are being made.

Soon, she is told that I should not be allowed on the flight; there are already too many Pakistanis waiting at the Abu Dhabi airport.

I look at people from India boarding the flight. I cannot help but feel envious.

10:30am

Things haven’t improved. I have been told that I will not be allowed to leave the airport.

The airline website has no updates. No one does.

I cannot contact the airline’s call centre. I only have a Pakistani SIM and an American one, neither of which work in Paris. None of the shops at the terminals sell SIM cards either.

The staffer calls the helpline and explains the situation to them. After this, she is done for the day and ready to leave the airport.

She says she'll send the call centre an email and copy me in it.

She has done everything in her control to help. She says that she can only pray for me now.

The comment is oddly comforting. The reliance on prayers reminds me of home.

11am

I am taken back to the American Airlines counter. The airline will place me in a hotel at the airport until I can catch another flight.

They ask if I have contacted my family.

"Yes, I’m in touch with them on Whatsapp. Thank you!"

I am then handed a phone, they have called the Pakistani Embassy in Paris. Dil Dil Pakistan is playing on a loop.

Several minutes pass with no response.

Someone finally answers and I explain my situation. The airline staff is clearly relieved that I am speaking to someone at the embassy. Maybe they expect I will be offered some clarity.

Instead, I am told to call between 2pm and 4pm as the relevant people are not in at the moment.

"But this is clearly an emergency, can you please make an exception and connect me to someone? I don’t even have a phone that works here."

The plea does not work.

I am sent to the hotel.

Two staffers from the counter walk with me to shuttle. One of them gives me her Whatsapp number to use in case of an emergency or if there are any updates. I shouldn’t call her at midnight though, she jokes.

We talk about the mindlessness of war as we walk.

12:30pm

I am checked in at Yotel, the airport hotel in Paris. I am not allowed to step outside the airport.

I check my phone. The woman from Etihad Airways has copied me in an email to the call centre as promised. Seeing the email only makes me more anxious.

I start going through social media to distract myself. My messages are full.

Friends have made jokes comparing me to Tom Hanks from The Terminal. Someone has deemed being "stuck" in Paris the most "first world problem ever". Others are giving suggestions of things to do at the airport.

Yotel, the hotel airport at Charles De Gaulle Airport.—All photos by author
Yotel, the hotel airport at Charles De Gaulle Airport.—All photos by author

On Twitter, people are lauding Prime Minister Imran Khan’s decision to send Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian pilot, back to India.

That’s all the news I can handle right now. Maybe I should read a book to distract myself.

The only book in my backpack is Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif. The story follows an American pilot who 'crash lands in the desert and finds himself on the outskirts of the very camp he was supposed to bomb.'

Great...

PARIS, Friday

7:15am

I get a call from American Airlines. It’s not good news.

They still don’t know when the airspace will open and when Etihad will be able to fly me back. The staffer asks me if there is some other country that I can go to without needing a visa.

I look at my Pakistani passport and try to think of an answer. When I am unable to give a satisfactory response, she tells me that she’ll call me back.

My room at the airport hotel.
My room at the airport hotel.

While waiting for her call, I apply for a Turkish e-visa online. Much to my delight, I receive it almost immediately.

If the airspace does not open, I’ll just go stay in Istanbul for a few days. I’m not spending any more time at the airport.

My phone rings again. American Airlines has booked me on a Saturday afternoon flight to Karachi via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. I request her to please ensure that my luggage is also sent to Pakistan with me.

Those suitcases have things from nearly two years of my life in New York. I’m not exactly returning home from a vacation.

10am

I get a call in my room. It is from the reception, they want me to come see them with my passport.

What now...

The receptionist is sitting with another green passport. A young Pakistani man is standing nearby.

I’m not the only Pakistani stranded here!

Turns out the receptionist had confused the two of us and mixed up some reservation details. The confusion is quickly resolved and I introduce myself to my fellow Pakistani.

"I’ve been here since yesterday," I say to him with the wisdom of an old-timer who has seen some things.

I soon learn that he arrived here before me.

We make plans to meet for lunch, but we aren’t able to follow through. He leaves for Doha soon after meeting me. The airspace has been partially opened.

I’ll be out of here soon too.

ISTANBUL, Saturday

8:30pm

I am on a shuttle with other Pakistanis being taken to the aircraft. There is a lot of excitement on the bus.

Some people know each other. Passengers who were stranded in Istanbul were apparently sent to the same hotel.

Others, like me, have just landed after being stuck at other airports. Everyone seems to have a long story to tell.

Someone announces that there is a Dulha Mian in our midst. The young man got held up in Istanbul while going back to Pakistan for his nikkah.

"Wow! Now see all the baratis who are going with you," a woman says.

"Should we start the gana bajana?," another woman asks.

"Seriously, we’ll come to the wedding," the first woman says.

"You’re most welcome," Dulha Mian tells her. "But you’ll have to come to Islamabad."

Indeed, for many Karachi is not the final destination.

KARACHI, Sunday

7am

I am standing with many of my fellow passengers whose luggage has not arrived with us. We are waiting outside a window to file a claim. People are getting impatient. Our flight landed over two hours ago.

Some women make their way inside the office to get their complaints filed. The people who have been waiting in line are not pleased.

"What you’re doing is wrong," one passenger says to the woman in protest.

"They have come here because there is no separate ladies' line," one of the men taking down the complaints says.

"Umm, hello?" some women standing in line say.

"Other women have been waiting here too. A woman was standing here while holding her crying baby," a man says, frustratedly clutching a foreign passport.

"Why aren’t more of you making noise? Things here won’t change like this," he says to others in line.

It is good to finally be back home.


Have you also been impacted by the airspace closures? Share your experience with us at prism@dawn.com