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Boarding for Better Horizons

Published in Jan-Feb 2021

Will Virgin Atlantic and the launch of AirSial bring more air traffic to Pakistani skies?

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), financially, 2020 will go down as the worst one in the history of aviation, given that globally the industry was virtually grounded by Covid-19 and then saw a very muted recovery in most of the markets due to travel restrictions. It is estimated that airline passenger revenue losses will reach $314 billion, while airports are set to register losses of approximately $21 billion and $38.8 billion in North America and Europe respectively by the end of 2020.

With the global RPK (Revenue Passenger Kilometres) declining to 66% (the largest since World War II) and the sector’s employment down by 1.9 million, the situation in Pakistan is no different. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) suffered losses worth Rs 416 million and the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) suffered losses worth Rs 259 million on a daily basis. Amid this unprecedented crisis, it came as cheering news when Virgin Atlantic announced in August 2020 the start of their direct flights to Pakistan from London and Manchester.

Virgin Atlantic’s first aircraft touched down in Islamabad from Manchester on December 11 and in the next four days, started two more routes: Islamabad to London (December 13) and Lahore to London (December 14). The response was overwhelming, given that a month earlier, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) had barred PIA indefinitely from flying to the EU and the UK due to the issues surrounding the fake pilot licences’ scandal.

Responding to the question of why Virgin decided to launch operations at a time when other airlines were struggling for survival and shelving all plans for expansion, Alex McEwan, Country Manager (South Asia), Virgin Atlantic, says that with travel restrictions remaining in place for many destinations around the world, the airline is continually evaluating their network, looking at customer demand and new launch opportunities.

“Pakistan is an extremely exciting opportunity for us as the UK is home to the largest Pakistani diaspora community outside of Pakistan with over 1.5 million people. The UK-Pakistan market has been displaying strong underlying growth of over five percent per annum, with a strong combination of business and leisure passengers, which gives us confidence about the long-term potential.”

McEwan adds that the Pakistan service is part of their long-term expansion network plan for Heathrow but was expedited to start in 2020 to cater to the current demand among passengers to visit relatives and friends (a segment that remained resilient during the pandemic). The airline is encouraged by the strong bookings so far and though the current focus is on Islamabad and Lahore (they have the best ties with the Pakistani diaspora living in the UK), Virgin will continue to regularly assess new destinations. In McEwan’s opinion, competition is essential for the aviation industry to thrive and he is convinced that Virgin Atlantic’s reputation for innovation and quality service, as well as the fact that the airline has been awarded a five-star global airline rating in the 2021 APEX Official Airline Ratings for the fourth consecutive year (the only British airline to have achieved this milestone) will set the on-board experience apart from any competition. “Our award winning service can be experienced in all three cabins: Economy, Upper and Premium at an affordable price.” The aim he says is to be the “most loved travel company” in every country and Pakistan is no exception.

While the focus of Virgin Atlantic is on UK-Pakistani travellers, a new local airline, AirSial, entered Pakistan’s airspace in December to cater to the domestic travel market. An initiative of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI), AirSial was launched as SCCI’s third major project, after Sialkot Dry Port and Sialkot International Airport. The new airline has a total paid up capital of four billion rupees and is currently the third private airline to run domestic operations in Pakistan after Serene Air and Airblue (which also fly internationally). The CAA had earlier suspended operations of Bhoja Air and Air Indus in 2012 and 2015 respectively, while Shaheen Air International’s (SAI) operations were suspended in 2018.

“The airline has been launched to facilitate air travel to and from Sialkot, a city that generates exports worth $2.5 billion from Pakistan,” says Fazal Jilani, Chairman, AirSial. Jilani is also a member of the SCCI and CEO of Surgicon, a company that manufactures surgical instruments and accessories in Sialkot. He adds that following the successful completion of Sialkot Airport, the SCCI was keen to launch an airline that could offer the finest in-flight service in Pakistan, at par with international standards and which could be termed as ‘The Pride of Pakistan’.

Although the SCCI was granted permission to run operations by the Aviation Division in September 2017, it took the airline three years to launch operations due to a shortage of A320-200s in the market; a delay which led to the expiry of their first (one-year) licence.

AirSial have started operations with three Airbus A320-200s, leased from AerCap, Dublin, with all economy seating for 180 passengers per aircraft. It is currently conducting daily round trips from Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Sialkot. In the second year, the airline plans to expand destinations to Saudi Arabia, the UAE; the Far East in the third year, followed by Europe and the US.

Keeping in view the importance of passenger safety and trust, in light of the fake licence scandal (still rife) and Covid-19, Jilani says all the pilots are inducted as per the standard instructions of the CAA and the airline is following all SOPs for Covid-19.

AirSial’s uniforms are designed by Nomi Ansari, who also designed the uniform for PIA. A short green shirt with three-quarter sleeves (with different coloured piping to differentiate the cabin crew from the ground staff) paired with a jacket, cap and scarf. Jilani says that for the first time in Pakistan a domestic airline will introduce two casserole meals as well as various cuisines and that in his opinion, AirSial will stand out among the competition.

Furthermore, Jilani foresees a bright future for AirSial given that the rate of travel is increasing by three to five percent every year. He believes the entry of new players (local and international) will not only provide passengers more choice, competitive fares and better service, it will generate jobs and strengthen the sector as well as the economy. Sharing Jilani’s optimism, McEwan believes that as Pakistan and the rest of the global economy recover from the impact of Covid-19, there will be a return to growth in the air travel business. “Pakistan is a growing tourism market and we look forward to carrying passengers to and from this fantastic destination.”

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