“Commercial flights are the most effective way"
Over 4,000 UK citizens who have been stranded in Pakistan will return to the UK via 12 Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flights.
Dr Christian Turner, the British High Commissioner to Pakistan, made the announcement on April 5, 2020.
He explained that the scale of British citizens wanting to return to the UK from Pakistan is “very large” but the priority is being given to the elderly, vulnerable and those who lack support.
Dr Turner said:
“We have worked very hard with the government of Pakistan and PIA to enable the departure of over 4,000 people to the UK.
“If you compare that to the flows of stranded Brits in most countries around the world, it is much more than what is happening from elsewhere.”
He acknowledged that there were people who wanted to get on a flight but were unsuccessful because “demand outstrips supply”.
While 1,000 people have already returned to the UK via PIA flights, many remain worried as Pakistan banned commercial flights between March 21 and April 4 in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Several stranded citizens said they felt “abandoned”, and shared complaints of non-availability of seats, exorbitant ticket prices and mismanagement.
Currently, there are around 100,000 British citizens in Pakistan, of which approximately 21,000 are temporary visitors from the UK.
Repatriating all temporary visitors would require around 100 flights.
Air Charter Service revealed that it had been hired by France, the Netherlands, the US and Germany but had not had any contact from the UK.
On March 31, 2020, the UK government announced a £75 million rescue package to help 300,000 UK citizens stranded abroad.
While the government is not subsidising fares, it has urged airlines not to overcharge and said that those who are struggling to purchase tickets can apply for “emergency loans”.
However, it is unclear how many loan requests have been successful.
Dr Turner added: “Commercial flights are the most effective way for Brits to get home.
“Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced a global FCO charter operation last week; that is only a last resort when no commercial options exist. Charters will still incur costs to travelling passengers.”
Even though PIA is set to help stranded travellers, there have been mismanagement allegations.
Vulnerable citizens expressed their anger at the airline for asking passengers to physically visit its offices for payments and refusing online payments.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, this requirement goes against the social distancing guidelines.
PIA spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez explained that for all flights up to April 11, PIA is urging passengers not to visit its offices and to make digital payments instead.
He added that travellers continue to crowd their ticket offices despite the instructions.
Mr Hafeez said: “Only passengers booked on the British High Commission’s special flights were asked to visit the PIA office in person to collect tickets.
“This was an exceptional case, as we did not have the ability to do their verification without their physical presence.”
Mr Hafeez went on to say that extra precautions are being taken for every PIA flight.
“The aircraft’s exposed surfaces are disinfected after every arrival. Tray service, newspaper and magazines have been discontinued and only packed food items are being given to passengers.
“Face masks and temperature checks are mandatory for all boarding passengers. 100 per cent of passengers returning to Pakistan on PIA flights are getting swab tests and isolation protocols are in place.”