For a long time, the aviation sector in Pakistan was dominated by the government-owned national airline – Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). About 10-15 years ago, the sector opened up and now there are private airlines with the biggest being Shaheen Air International (SAI) and airblue. Each airline serves both the domestic Pakistani market as well as international flights. Flying with a Pakistan-based airline is a bit of a gamble, as they are not known for their on-time performance or for their customer service.
It has been a long time since I had flown with PIA – in fact more than 20 years. PIA had originally been a good airline, with decent service and a decent on-board product. As time went by their service, on-time arrival and departure, and customer service went down. This did not instill a lot of confidence in the airline, thus why we stayed away. We decided to give them a try on a quick domestic flight before deciding on whether to fly them internationally. We were flying from Lahore to Karachi. Each airline serves this route with varying frequency – PIA has the biggest frequency while airblue has the least frequency. Their prices vary as well, with SAI and airblue relatively the same price and PIA prices depending on flight time and availability. All of the airlines are full-service, meaning that standard with the ticket are allocated seats, checked baggage, hand-carry baggage, and meal + drinks on board. The difference between the airlines are service on the ground, their service on-board, their safety record, as well as their on-time performance – none of the airlines have a reputation which excels at any of these though. For our flight, we decided to try PIA from Lahore to Karachi and then SAI from Karachi to Lahore (I had previously tried airblue for an international flight). This is my review of Pakistan International Airlines from Lahore to Karachi in April 2016.
Since PIA has been around for a while, and they are the national airline, they have a lot of resources so they are able to provide more options in terms of flight times. I went online to reserve my ticket, and noticed that they had a lot of flight options throughout the day. The flights were operated by various aircrafts and ranged in prices. We had initially booked the evening flight online which was operated by an Airbus A320, but due to technical reasons we could not confirm our flight. We were instructed to go to a travel agency or PIA office for payment and ticket confirmation. When we went to the office, we changed to the morning flight to allow us more time in Karachi, it was less expensive, and it was a chance to experience PIA’s Boeing 777. Why a Boeing 777 is being used on a 1hr45 minute flight is a good question – some reasons given were the high demand on the route while other reasons were that this plane needed a technical check and that takes place in Karachi. Whatever the reason, we booked a morning flight which was scheduled to depart Lahore at 11am and arrive into Karachi at 12:45pm.
PIA is a full service airline, so when we booked our ticket we were able to select our seats. Our ticket included checked baggage, a meal/light snack (depending on the timing of the flight), as well as carry-on. PIA does not offer web check-in so we had to go to the airport to deposit our bags and collect our boarding passes. We arrived to the airport early – even though they recommend 2 hours, most passengers go to the airport an hour before the scheduled departure. PIA is not known for its on-time departures and even though boarding time was scheduled for 10:30am, we did not start boarding until almost 10:50am. The operating plane was a Boing 777 that was in retro PIA livery and from the outside, the plane looked very nice.
Boarding finally started and we made our way to the plane. On the jet bridge, before entering the plane, there was a stack of newspaper available for the passengers. The newspapers available were a wide variety of local and international, and available in both English and Urdu. When we entered the plane, we could immediately tell that 1) this plane did not originally belong to PIA and 2) PIA seemed to have only updated the outside and did very little to nothing on the inside. The plane had belonged to Vietnam Airlines and PIA had not changed the interior. The seats were in the Vietnam Airlines color scheme and patterns; the PTV had either the Vietnam Airlines logo or something written in Vietnamese displayed; the information on the back of the tray tables was written in Vietnamese and English; and finally there was Christmas music playing on the speakers. The only modifications to the plane PIA had made was the outside paint job, and they put PIA seat flaps on each seat.
The plane was in a 3-3-3 layout and was divided into Business Class, Economy Plus, and three sections of economy – the entire plane was completely full. The seats themselves were decent and comfortable enough for the short flight, but definitely not comfortable for long-haul sector. The seat pitch was average, not too tight but not too generous and decent enough for the short flight. The PTVs were very old, had small screens, and did not work. Half the screens continued to show the Vietnam Airlines logo, while the others displayed the flight map. Even when the safety video was screened, only the videos on the walls displayed the video instead of displaying on each PTV.
The service on the plane was good given the short sector. We were in the economy and as we reached cruising altitude, the attendants served a snack. The snack consisted of half a sandwich and dessert. While not a lot, it was enough for the short sector. Complimentary soft drinks and juice were also distributed along with the meal. After the meal, both tea and coffee were offered – in fact tea and coffee were offered several times. A good aspect was the service on the plane, as the flight attendants were constantly in the aisles passing out food or drinks, collecting the waste, and answering passenger questions regarding PIA’s frequent flyer program.
Announcements were made in both English and Urdu and some interesting items that happened during the flight – when the flight attendant was welcoming the passengers and talking about the plane, she mentioned something I had not heard before. She said ‘this is your national airline, so please take care of it’. That is something I have not heard before, and I was not sure if it was something new as a PR or part of their turnaround (PIA is going through transition and had recently been through strikes by their worker. The second interesting thing was the Captain’s announcement – when the Captain came on to talk about the flight, he sounded like a newscaster reading out the news. He also spoke for a while, as he spoke for a good length in English and then translated everything in Urdu.
We landed in Karachi a bit behind schedule and taxied to our gate and deplaned. Overall, it was an interesting experience with PIA. I had a lot of hesitation when booking my travel with PIA – they are not known for an on-time departure, for their on-board service, nor for having updated planes. I experienced some of that (not an updated plane) but was overall generally pleased with the service on the plane. The service and the experience were decent and good enough for the short-haul domestic sector, but I don’t think I would choose PIA for long-haul. From what I have heard others who have travelled internationally on PIA, my experience on the short-haul is similar to the international sector – with decent service but older planes and non-working PTVs. PIA has some potential, but definitely needs some work. Their motto is ‘Great People to Fly With’ and while it was not a great experience, it was better than I expected.