Pakistan International Airlines, I have one question for you as a Chicago resident and arguably O’Hare’s biggest fan-boy writer on the Internet:
Where is the love??
You have graced our lovely, congested, high-landing fee, drama-filled, delay-prone airport three (maybe four?) times with your off-and-on presence in the past. It’s been a year since your most recent departure from the lineup of foreign tails at Int’l Terminal 5, and I was so excited upon hearing that you were gearing up for a re-launch on June 5, a few short weeks away!
I’m aware you don’t participate in any alliances, and that you are a dry airline with no alcohol served on-board. It’s okay, I can deal. Your scheduling convenience may not be all that fantastic (and your aircraft safety record somewhat spotty per media sources) but that doesn’t phase me, either.
PIA, you were scheduled to operate two-weekly flights from Chicago to Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore this summer, via Barcelona in each direction. With full 5th-freedom traffic rights on the ORD to Barcelona sector, you suddenly added an exotic option to transport Chicagoans across the pond.
After stumbling upon your steal business-class round-trip deals available for booking all summer ($879 airfare, including taxes and fees, for virtually any week that I wanted), I knew I had found the golden ticket for a 5-day vacación on the glittering beaches of España, where I once lived for a summer.
But yesterday, you dropped a bomb on me.
My heart sank on Monday morning to read, via airlineroute.net, that you had pulled the planned Chicago service resumption from the Global Distribution System, and all inventory had been zero’ed out. You’ve left the competition smiling ever so slyly in your wake, as the next cheapest available J-CL fare between ORD and BCN is on sale for roughly quadruple the price.
With that, my plans for Barcelona are a gone-a.
PIA, we have more of a special connection than you may realize off the bat
I thrive on randomness. Three weeks ago, I was with my best friend, and fellow aviation fan-boy (arguably, Chi-town’s finest aside from me) walking on Devon Street in West Rogers Park near Loyola, just on an afternoon stroll. Devon street is the most densely-populated South Asian neighborhood in the Chicagoland area, so traditional that, if I were to close my eyes and blink them open, I could easily mistake it for a blue collar neighborhood in Lahore or Amritsar. Think Chicago’s answer to South Hall in West London.
When I returned to my car that I had parked on the street, someone had placed a placard on it that promoted PIA’s return to Chicago. I saved a copy, in fact, even photographed it on the spot, ecstatic about this good news! I’ve posted the pic in this blog below.
It was a sign: three weeks later, I was casually checking dummy fares on the ORD-BCN sector, and, upon discovering the steal offer, I rang up my friend excitedly, and we were prepared to book. VIVA ESPANA!
Plans were in the making. The novelty of flying PIA was beyond exhilarating. As a servant to United, I rarely have the opportunity to fly out of the international terminal at O’Hare, and this trip would not only provide me that opportunity, but also allow me to experience the new renovations in O’Hare Terminal 5 slated to be unveiled this year. Word on the street is that PK shares lounge access with Air France, which would be an extra bonus for us as J-Class passengers.
We were thrilled to discover what the passenger make-up would be like on this flight as we waited at the gate to board. Was it used by expats and diplomats, visiting friends and relatives, military officials and holidaying tourists? All of the above? Would passengers be dressed wearing traditional pajama-style kurtas and saris or in western clothing?
On board, we envisioned the opportunity to relax and wedge out on a lie-flat seat in Business class, among the presence of people from all corners of the world who we rarely have the opportunity to meet on a day to day basis. Exchanging stories of love for aviation and sharing information about our global backgrounds.
PIA, I have heard that your crew is renown for their personal touch and enjoy being employed by your airline, “for the joy of flying,” after reading a trip report of PIA’s Premium Class service from Chicago to Barcelona (written by a personal friend who flew this route when it was last operational). We dreamt of experiencing warm Pakistani hospitality with top-tier restaurant quality catering served to us from a trolley in an overall lavishly-presented affair.
From our passion to your pleasure, it was a chance to try out a fifth-freedom route and experience something bizarrely random and unique. As an aviation junkie, I’m having 5th-freedom withdrawals. It’s been over 6 years since my last 5th freedom flight journeying between Chicago and London by way of Air India, a route that no longer exists.
The rumor mills on aviation interest websites were teeming abuzz with good news about the re-launch. My “inside sources” had written to me personally saying that PIA had applied for landing rights with Customs and Border Patrol and had tendered for ground services and crew accommodation facilities at O’Hare.
Plans seemed all but firmly cemented. As it turned out, expectations were too good to be true.
Now, the way I see it, an opportunity of a lifetime, folded
Imagine how your previously-enthusiastic sales staff and ethnic travel agents lined up and down Devon must feel right now. Three weeks ago, they were promulgating the news via distributing fancily-designed placards to win the hearts of the 100,000 people of Pakistani origin living in Cook County.
Now, they have to face the daunting task of informing all passengers with confirmed reservations on PIA that the national flag carrier and state-owned enterprise of the Government of Pakistan is selling out on them.
PIA, your relationship towards the City of Chicago is just like the spring weather in the Windy City: hot and cold.
Through my regular research tactics, I was able to trace your service date history as far back as 1997. Pakistan first came to Chicago in the roaring 90’s by linking its existing services to New York JFK. It’s distinguishable Forest Green tail on an Airbus A310 with the acronym “P-I-A” lettered in bold white was a prominent figure at the K-gates in Terminal 3, home for ORD hub carrier American Airlines.
I remember this livery and paint scheme. I saw it for the first time when I was pulling up to the curb at Toronto Pearson Int’l airport to catch a late night Air Canada flight to Heathrow. I even remember the exact date: June 19, 1998. I was just an 11 year-old boy who remembered when his Mom pointed to the PIA A310 parked at Terminal 1, glimmering in the Canadian dusk, and said to her son, “now THAT is an exotic airline to fly someday!”
Just so you know, that Christmas, I received a die-cast 1:600 toy model of the PIA A310 in the Forest Green livery, which resides in my game room in Dallas as we speak, safely guarded.
Funny how all these years since then, you’ve never given up on flying to Toronto, nor New York. But, you gave up on us in Chicago. Not just once, nor twice, but multiple times in the past.
Granted, the late 90’s predated the booming days before on-line distribution, and PIA, I understand that for you, Chicago was a tough sell. You left the Midwest almost as quickly as you came. The Asia Pacific Economic Crisis, subsequent dot-com bust, and post 9/11 recession era further cemented your absence from resuming service to ORD for years given troublesome times.
Then, starting in May 2003, you created a new “blueprint” for your Chicago operations that would remain in place over the next four….errr…three concentrated attempts to link Chicago to Pakistan (over Europe).
Flights 795/796s would on Saturdays with an A310 flying Karachi – Islamabad – Birmingham (UK) – Chicago, and return. Flights 793/794 operated on Wednesdays, same equipment, operating Karachi – Lahore – Birmingham – Chicago, and return. The journey was 19 hours each way.
Recommitting to Chicago was a huge milestone for you, PIA, given the volatile nature of the US – Middle East relations at the time. Yet, despite the conflicts, this was probably the longest stretch that you lasted at ORD. Eventually, you received spankin’ new 777-200ERs/LRs to upgrade your ORD flights from the A310, and re-routed services via Manchester, U.K. both ways.
With passenger load factors allegedly approaching break-even levels, Chicago looked promising in your global network. Around 2006/2007, you sought Federal Aviation Administration permission to operate nonstop services to ISB, KHI and LHE thrice weekly on the LRs. FAA policies had prevented nonstop Pakistan-USA flights at this time, since Pakistani airports allow politicians to board flights without going through a security screening. Hence, why the inbound flights were subjected to another security check in Europe.
However, nonstop USA-Pakistan flights were and are permitted, and ORD mattered enough to you to make the Manchester stopover in one direction only (which was, and is, the case with your New York spoke). Flights to Toronto operate nonstop to Pakistan in either direction as permitted by Canadian authorities.
Yet again, PIA, I know you fell on tough times. Rising oil prices and financial difficulties never allowed you to explore the viability of nonstop flights from Chicago to Pakistan, and in September 2007, you announced intentions to discontinue services to the Chicago station.
But, you still did not give up.
In early 2010, you loaded O’Hare back into the GDS, recommencing flights 795/796 and 793/794 using the same city pairings, except via Barcelona in either direction this time. I’m not really sure why, exactly, you chose Barcelona, given that the local pick-up traffic is likely higher in Birmingham or Manchester via scissor route operations, but you made the call, and we were happy to have you back.
Still, things looked promising. You even up-gauged ORD to a 777-300ER at one point, and started interlining with American Airlines.
Two years later, you solemnly announced that you were once again ending ORD. March 2012 was a blow to Chicago as we not only lost you, PIA, but also American Airlines flights 292/293 nonstop to Delhi. These were major grievances dealt to the local South Asian community in Chicago as our options thinned out.
Yet again, the suspension seemed short-lived. Rumors began circulating in November 2012 that PIA was ready to re-enter the Chicago arena again in summer 2013.
It was going to be an exciting addition to an burgeoning summer of new service to O’Hare. Last month, airberlin launched services from ORD to Berlin. PIA, you also did not seem phased by the entrance of Gulf Coast mammoth Qatar Airways into the O’Hare market, which commenced a thrice-weekly flight to Doha earlier this month. More additions are on the way in the form of Austrian Airlines re-commencing service to Vienna and Hainan Airlines to Beijing in September.
Among notable frequency increases from LOT, Aer Lingus and SWISS as well as new international services from hub carriers American and United, Pakistan’s re-entry in Chicago was something to really look forward to.
PIA, nobody seemed to care that you are somewhat of a flake towards us. So why all the sudden bail out?
I also know that 2012 was a tough year for you financially, having lost over USD $300 million. Decisions are tough and times are even tougher. The nature of the challenge has forced you to re-think your international network strategy.
But, PIA, I ask that you quit playing games with us. Either take us or leave us, but from the heart of a die-hard Chicago aviation fan, please try not to lead me on anymore.
The day that I received the placard on my windshield, I felt that the universe was sending me a sign. Carpe diem! It all seemed to connect. From my youthful days as an amateur spotter in Toronto (the pictures are mere mental snapshots) to my severely overzealous aviation junky tendencies that I’ve never outgrown, we’ve always shared some special, unspoken connection.
Some day, I’ll have the pleasure of testing out your services, but I just want you to know that hope that we can still be friends. Next time you say you’re coming to visit, I not only want to see you in person, but also want to be taken for a joyride.