PIA brings back stranded VIPs from Britain on special flight, ignores plight of ordinary citizens

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LONDON: Since April 9, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has not taken any passengers, stranded in Britain because of the coronavirus pandemic, back to Pakistan. The April 9 flight had flown members of a federal minister from London to Islamabad. 

The national airline has no information whether or when there will be any flight to repatriate nearly 400 stranded Pakistanis back home in the near future, sources within the airline say. 

Sources in PIA have also confirmed that special arrangements were made for the April 9 flight because three family members of a government minister and other “dignitaries” were stranded in London and needed to return at any cost.

“All the plugs were pulled out and special arrangements were made for that flight to take passengers from the Heathrow Airport in London to Islamabad Airport in Pakistan because family members of a minister and some other dignitaries wanted to leave London on an urgent basis,” said the source, pleading anonymity.

Since then there have been several “ferry” flights to Pakistan from London, but no passengers have been taken by PIA based on the pretext that there are no quarantine arrangements at Pakistani airports at the moment, and PIA staff have asked for better virus protection.

The PIA source said that around 150 passengers were taken on the April 9 flight, and the remaining seats, after the VIPs had been accommodated, were kept empty to maintain social distancing. 

A spokesman of Pakistan High Commission confirmed that it had passed lists of stranded passengers to the PIA. “Only those passengers were added in the list who were recommended by Ministry of Foreign Affairs and PIA’s head office,” the spokesman added. 

Two passengers who were able to make it to Pakistan on the same flight confirmed that they were able to get seats after a lot of lobbying which involved recommendations at the ministerial level.

While well-connected passengers have been able to fly back to Pakistan from the UK, around 400 passengers remain in the country without any support from the Pakistani authorities. 

Many of the Pakistanis stranded in Britain are short-term travellers, and vulnerable people, including the elderly and the sick, and also students whose original flights got cancelled when Pakistan closed its airspace on March 21.

The Civil Aviation Authority had initially planned to close the airspace till April 4, but as of the filing of this story, commercial flights have not been allowed to fly to and from Pakistan. 

Passengers whose flights have been cancelled have criticised the government for flying empty flights back to Pakistan from the UK when even a single flight from London would be enough to accommodate all stranded Pakistanis in London.

Habibur Rehman, a heart patient who is stuck in Stoke, said, “I am running out of my medicine, I have heart problems but the pharmacies here aren’t giving me medicines over the counter. They say they want a prescription but doctors aren’t allowing me to visit the hospital.”

Mohammad Noman, an elderly businessman from Karachi said, “My wife and I are diabetic and heart patients, we don’t have medical supplies. Contacted Pakistan High Commission multiple times but no help. They took my information but did nothing. PIA has not cooperated, given no information.”

Noman’s son, Burhan who is extremely upset over his parent’s condition said, “We are citizens of Pakistan and our own country is not taking us back.”

Another Karachi resident who works as a cloth merchant and is stuck in the UK said, “I’m a blood pressure patient. When my medicine ended, the National Health Service (NHS) gave me one week’s supply and said this was all they could provide because I’m a foreigner. I don’t know what will happen to my health if I don’t get my medicine. The Pakistani government should do everything they can to help me.”

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