Pakistan International Airlines began life with a different name and started in a different country. PIA traces its origins to Orient Airways which launched its first service in May 1947 between Kolkata (India) and Yangon (Myanmar). With the creation of Pakistan in August 1947 Orient Airways moved its head office to Karachi and in 1955 it became Pakistan International Airlines. As a symbol of Pakistan the airline benefited from government funding which allowed it to invest in the latest aircraft and expand its network impressively. In 1960 PIA became Asia’s first airline to operate a passenger jet which enabled it to launch services to New York in 1961. PIA experimented with helicopters in the 1960’s which proved economically unviable. In 1971 the Indian Air Force shot down three PIA cargo planes during the war over Bangladesh but the airline’s steady expansion continued into the 1990’s with the airline adding a diverse variety of aircraft to their fleet. In the 1990’s PIA’s aging fleet was due for replacement however Pakistan’s government had more pressing priorities and the airline’s network and reputation began to shrink. In 2007 the European Union banned most of PIA’s fleet from EU airspace due to safety infringements however newer aircraft continue to provide services. Pakistan’s government deregulated aviation in 1993 and the resulting competition has damaged the airline’s balance sheet considerably. The government is exploring ways to privatise the airline but buyers remain scarce.
It is difficult to think of anything positive to say about PIA’s on-board service. Crew seem to have a superiority complex and consider doing anything more than their job a real imposition. Service is slow and passengers who press their call buttons (if they work) are considered an annoyance. Smiling is not huge in Pakistan so many foreign passengers may find the lack of warmth from on board staff noticeable. Crew genuinely seem bored in all classes of travel however they do all speak English. While Pakistan is a colorful and interesting country the intertiors, fabric colors and uniforms are quite boringly designed.
PIA has an extensive domestic network within Pakistan and they have good links connecting Karachi and Lahore to the outside world, however Emirates provide better and more reliable services to four cities in Pakistan so if you are not heading to Pakistan’s two largest cities the chances are Emirates are better. Domestic travel within Pakistan can be a nightmare so PIA’s extensive network can prove convenient for short air hops from once city to another.
Considering the inferior quality service passengers can expect from PIA, their prices are not cheap. International competitors offer similar priced fares but typically give better service. Domestic services are also not cheap, however passengers flying between big cities during off peak hours can pick up discount tickets. It pays to compare prices with Pakistan’s number two airline Air Blue, which offers a similarly poor level of service, but at a cheaper price.
PIA’s catering is actually quite good. Westerners flying on domestic services may be shocked to be offered cheese sandwiches and very western tasting meals that are substantial in size. On international flights meal sizes in all classes are generously proportioned and usually very delicious. While most airlines remove spice and flavour from their meals PIA cannot resist pepping up their catering with a little chilli and Indian spices. Premium passengers are offered a very wide selection of choices which they can pick and choose from cafeteria style. Hungry passengers will be pleased they booked PIA. Meals are nicely presented however foreigners may miss being served alcohol.
PIA does have a good entertainment system on all larger jet aircraft. The individual IFE (in-flight entertainment) units on the back of each seat have a wide selection of Hollywood, Bollywood and Urdu movies together with English and Urdu TV shows, documentaries and sit-coms. On top of this there are games and music channels. Newspapers are provided free of charge to all passengers and the airline’s English/Urdu magazine Humsafer (travel companion) comes out twice a month. Smaller aircraft on PIA’s domestic routes do not have TV screens but do have magazines and newspapers.
PIA check-in staff seem used to having arguments with passengers over ticketing issues and excess baggage and the stress shows. While staff may often appear short tempered they seldom seem happy so don’t expect great service from them and you won’t be disappointed. Pakistani air travellers are used to baggage theft and damage so wrap and lock their bags carefully. Its advisable to do the same, plus take out Travel Insurance. While the nation of Pakistan may have a poor security reputation the airline operates without any real safety concerns from terrorists.
PIA does provide premium passengers with a degree of service similar to other legacy airlines. The airline’s Business Plus class has modern pod-style seating, however they do not lie flat. Passengers will enjoy larger TV screens and generous space. While Business Plus is nice it lacks the luxurious feel that other airlines have. PIA’s Business Plus lounges are only available in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore while international premium passengers are provided access to partner lounges which vary from regal to ordinary depending on the city. PIA’s premium passengers enjoy express check-in and are provided a concierge service to whisk them through customs and security.
PIA offers Economy passengers an ordinary product, however Urdu speakers may enjoy the entertainment options on PIA which may not be available on other carriers. PIA’s baggage allowance is standard, service ordinary and meal service a little above average. PIA’s airfares are competitive, however superior airlines, like Emirates, Thai or Flydubai are usually available for a similar price. PIA does not have self check-in kiosks however domestic passengers with no bags can check in at the boarding gate.
PIA’s Awards Plus frequent flyer program is aimed at Pakistani travellers and is unlikely to be of any use to someone who isn’t. PIA is not a member of any airline grouping and its frequent flyer program is not partnered with other carriers. Like other loyalty schemes points are difficult to redeem and hard to earn unless you are travel a lot.
Working for PIA is still a very privileged occupation in Pakistan and the airline even has ‘colonies’ of workers who live in entire housing estates for company employees in Karachi and Lahore. Corruption is common within the company and jobs, upgrades, excess baggage and stand-by seats are often received through bribery. The company is administratively top heavy and has an excess layer of middle managers who are employed to shuffle papers from one tray to another. The airline has suffered financially from deregulation and competition from better run Middle Eastern and Asian airlines and management has been unable to reverse the slow decline of the airline. Pakistan’s government talks of privatising the airline however the real question is who would want to buy it?
Considering the age of PIA’s very mixed fleet of aircraft and considering the terrible conditions many of their domestic routes are flown under, the airline has a surprisingly lucky safety record. The EU banned many PIA aircraft types from European airspace due to the airline using inferior parts in maintenance. Aircraft manufacturers typically sell spare parts at excessive prices and presumably PIA’s maintenance crews had fabricated cheaper spare parts to save money. While this may have been against the rules it may not necessarily have make the airline any less safe. PIA operates many second and third hand aircraft which have had multiple previous owners.
PIA Pakistan provides a very average service that lacks luxury or reliability.
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