At the World’s Worst Airline Hope Springs Eternal

Pakistan International Airlines has the worst financial performance per employee of any airline in the world.

Yet employees feel they aren’t well-compensated enough for their contribution, and are fighting against privatization which they fear could undermine their compensation, benefits, and no show jobs. (Pakistan is required to privatize the airline under terms of an IMF loan.)

Boeing 777 on Approach to New York JFK in 2014, Copyright zhukovsky / 123RF Stock Photo

This year employee protests over privatization turned violent in clashes with police involving rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas.

When flight operations go south, the airline is particularly bad such as sending all of their passengers by bus to another airport over 160 miles away, only to have them turned away and sent back.

    Passengers have shown up in Lahore only to be told their flight was ‘really leaving’ from Islamabad — only to make the journey to that other city to find out they were misinformed.

    When PIA employees are forced to overnight passengers at a hotel at the airline’s expense, the employees earn kickbacks from those hotels.

An interview with Pakistan International Airlines’ Chief Operating Officer reveals that the challenges he and PIA face are fundamentally different from those of the big global carriers.

While American Airlines is handing out bonuses, trying to get employees to like their jobs and be nice to customers, Pakistan International Airlines figures it would be a start if they’d just clean their aircraft.

[I]t is quite easy to motivate employees. There are so many areas on the agenda where we can improve. Cabin cleaning is a must. An aircraft must smell clean.

That’s likely harder than it seems if this sign from the women’s restroom in the Lahore airport CIP lounge is any indication.

Even when the airline manages to operate on-time, that creates its own problems: customers build failure into their expectations and don’t actually show up for flights when they’re scheduled to depart.

We improved our on-time performance from 60% to more than 80%. In the last few months this increased to 95%. But this created a new problem because some passengers started missing their flights once PIA became more punctual.

The airline operates a fleet of:

  • 11 Airbus A320s
  • 11 Boeing 777s (split between 200ER, 300ER, and 200LR variants)
  • 10 ATR turboprops

They’re planning to reconfigure “up to five” of their Boeing 777s with a new business class product, with the first one expected to fly in February.

Here’s an ad for their current business class product:

But here’s what it’s like to fly PIA without air conditioning:

Operations are split primarily across three airports — Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore — Islamabad has no taxiway, and Lahore operations are seasonally hindered by heavy fog. Their best-performing routes are Islamabad and Lahore to London. Non-hub operations have bright spots, too, like Peshawar-Kuala Lumpur.

Despite “1.5 million Pakistanis living in Dubai” Pakistan International Airlines has only a 9% market share between Pakistan and Dubai. Everyone would rather fly Emirates.

Nonetheless, the only place to go for PIA is up. In a country of 200 million people, Pakistan’s commercial airlines operate a total of just 70 aircraft (including turboprops). So if the country doesn’t allow foreign competition inside its borders, the airline stands to benefit from catchup growth alone. And hope, it seems, springs eternal:

When Islamabad gets a new airport in July next year—which will be similar in construction to Singapore Changi’s Terminal 2—this will be the perfect facility.

While they’re not quite ready to “dream of being part of a global alliance” they do hope to codeshare and also that,

In five years, PIA should be delivering a much better service, be focused on what’s important, and operating daily flights with harmonized schedules.

Pakistan International Airlines, preparing to steal American Airlines’ twitter hashtag #goingforgreat.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. In countries like Pakistan and India the national airline is more of. Private jet service for the politicians and senior bureaucrats.
    Any international agreement such as the one with the IMF is simply another (minor) obstacle and is generally regarded as a joke in poor taste.

  2. The main reason behind these financial facts and figures is the politics of Pakistan. When corrupt politicians get to the highest level of the country then the only thing they can do is harm the nation by utilizing every mean..
    PIA is being used by the politicians as their personal property.. Absolute NONE of them even dare to pay the fare..

  3. Gary I can attest what you have written is quite true unfortunately. The airline is truly in a dump, although I saw some signs of improvement on my last flight. With a growing middle class in Pakistan, and barely any competition, PIA can grow phenomenally if it can discipline its employees, upgrade the equipment, and invest in a better hard product. Most employees are political appointments, and a lot of them simply refuse to even show up on the job because their pay checks are guaranteed. PIA has one of the world’s worst aircraft to employee ratios. Sadly, most people I know (myself included) prefer to fly Etihad/Emirates/Qatar/Turkish. I really do hope that PIA can find a way out of this mess, and capture the growing market.

  4. Nice update/revision and thanks for the extra material. Just watching/listening to a few minutes of the “PIA without air conditioning” video started giving me nausea. That’s one airline I’ll remember never to fly.

  5. I feel the author is very biased in his analysis. Many of the issues highlighted are not even PIA’s fault e.g. fog and no taxi way at Islamabad (btw Lahore Airport now is now ILS Cat 3B equipped).
    I suggest the author travels by PIA himself and then give a more objective reviews.

  6. Pakistan is such a beautiful country I hope to visit someday…is something never said by anyone…ever.

  7. @Rob

    Actually, the northern part is very, very gorgeous. i plan to go there myself once Hyatt completes their hotels there (a Grand Hyatt and a Hyatt Regency is set to open in the next few years). Right now they only have a marriott in the north and maybe an SPG property.

  8. I would love to visit Pakistan, but my visa was denied as soon as I handed over the $100-or-so cashier’s check at the Los Angeles consulate a few years ago. The lady said tourism is not encouraged. I asked if she could slide back the check. She said it was too late and the money goes to the Pakistan treasury. Ahh, screw ’em.

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