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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

PIA, world’s most overstaffed airline, can’t find stranded passengers

Pakistan International Airline has lost track of passengers that may be stranded anywhere from New York to Beijing

Islamabad/Karachi: The world’s least productive airline has lost track of passengers that may be stranded anywhere from New York to Beijing.

Workers at Pakistan International Airlines Corp. have been on strike over the past week, prompting the national carrier to cancel more than 200 flights. Each of its 15,000 full-time employees earns the airline 61,000 a year, the lowest among 72 global peers tracked by Bloomberg—making it the world’s most overstaffed by this measure.

“We have no data available on how many and where passengers with confirmed PIA tickets are waiting, because the entire system is shut, servers are down and no booking is being done," spokesman Danyal Gilani said by phone. The airline, known as PIA, flies regularly to overseas destinations, including Toronto, Birmingham and Riyadh.

The crisis at the state-owned airline shows no sign of abating as labor leaders pressure prime minister Nawaz Sharif to halt plans to sell a 26% stake. Despite deadly protests this week, the airline’s shares have risen after Sharif vowed to press ahead with the sale, which is key to meet conditions under a $6.6 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.

“This could be the start of a much broader opposition, both political and union coalition, against the privatization programme," said Sakib Sherani, chief executive officer at Macroeconomic Insights in Islamabad. “It will affect Pakistan’s credibility."

PIA has made efforts to find all of its stranded passengers. It was in talks with Etihad Airways PJSC and Turkish Airlines to fly passengers stranded in Europe, the US and Canada, Gilani said in a text message. Saudi Arabian Airlines is helping fly back 2,000 passengers from the kingdom.

The airline also agreed with Pakistan-based private carriers AirBlue and Shaheen to accept PIA’s confirmed ticket passengers for flights to Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, Dubai, Muscat, Jeddah and Riyadh, a PIA spokesman said in a statement on Thursday.

The government owns a 92% stake in PIA and the employees own 3.9%. Losses more than tripled to 2,780 crore in 2015 from 2010, director Amir Ali told law makers in January.

Pakistan’s lower house of parliament last month passed a bill permitting conversion of PIA into a public limited company, seen as the first step toward privatization. The proposal now awaits approval by the opposition-dominated Senate. The government plans to seek bids for the stake sale by 15 May, privatization minister Mohammad Zubair said in an interview on Wednesday.

‘Complex endeavor’

“Pakistan is trying to bring a strategic partner who could contribute more aircraft," finance minister Ishaq Dar told reporters in Dubai on Thursday. “There is no plan to sack employees of PIA or make them redundant."

The IMF also sought to calm the situation, saying it doesn’t impose deadlines for privatization. The government had earlier conveyed that it had planned for a sale in June.

“Privatization is always a complex endeavor," the IMF’s Pakistan chief Harald Finger told reporters in Dubai. “It’s always important to get them right, than to do them fast."

Employees don’t seem reassured. Hundreds of them protested outside PIA offices across the country on Tuesday, resulting in the deaths of two workers. While union leaders claim they were shot dead by the paramilitary, spokesmen for the force and the police denied that shots were fired.

Either way the strike continues, as does PIA’s search for stranded passengers. Bloomberg

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