ISLAMABAD: Hundreds of expatriates, their relatives and friends protested in front of the office of Saudi Airlines in Islamabad due to the unavailability of seats on flights.

An increasing number of expats who returned to Pakistan from different countries as Covid-19 began spreading around the world have been visiting airline offices to buy tickets to return to the countries where they work.

Most of them are working in Arab countries, from where they returned in the early days of the pandemic. After international flights resumed, their employers have asked them to return to work. The work visas - known as iqamas - of most of these expats will expire by Sept 30, another reason why they are trying to buy tickets which has led to a shortage of seats and flights.

Hundreds of expats have been seen queuing outside the offices of various airlines, including Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and Saudi Airlines. On Tuesday, they visited the Saudi Airlines office and, when informed about the unavailability of seats, gathered on Jinnah Avenue to protest.

They blocked the avenue and demanded that special arrangements be made for their departure. Due to the protest, metro bus services were also suspended briefly.

The assistant commissioner city and Kohsar police station house officer (SHO) negotiated with the protesters. Kohsar SHO Shabir Tanoli told Dawn more than 500 peaceful protesters blocked the avenue for an hour.

Airline officials were also approached to address the intending passengers’ issues, he said, and staff in the Islamabad office contacted officials in Saudi Arabia who assured that special flights would be arranged for expats.

He said the protesters dispersed after airline staff informed them that special flights would be arranged for them.

In addition, PIA and the aviation minister have sought the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ assistance for permission from Saudi Arabian authorities to increase flights between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia or extend the expiry date for iqamas due to the increasing number of intending passengers.

A PIA spokesperson said the airline has been operating regular flights to Saudi Arabia, but there has been an increase in intending passengers as most iqamas will expire on Sept 30.

In light of this, PIA has sought permission from Saudi authorities to operate 28 more flights from Sept 15. Currently, only 13 flights are allowed by Saudi Arabia.PIA has asked that people whose iqamas are expiring on Sept 25 apply for tickets for the next two days, and those whose iqamas are expiring on Sept 30 should apply two days later.

Because PIA offices are busy, people should also obtain tickets online or through the call centre, he said.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2020