AT 2.30 pm Tuesday, the office of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) at Nariman Point wore a deserted look. Ehsan Khan, the sole ticket-booking staffer, was attending to two passengers. Until six months ago, the office had four staff members, who were booking at least a hundred passengers for each flight to Karachi.
“The passengers are here to ask for a re-route of their journeys since our services will be suspended from Thursday. As no other airline offers direct connectivity to Karachi, we are helping them take a switch from Dubai from where they can take a PIA flight to Karachi,” Khan said.
As PK275, the last flight to Karachi from Mumbai, took off Monday, the hearts of seven permanent working staff at the airline’s Mumbai office sank. The future of their jobs now hinges on what they believe could be a rushed decision taken at the PIA headquarters in Karachi.
From tension at the border to terror attacks, for these staffers, the passenger traffic on the Mumbai-Karachi and Karachi-Mumbai flights has been an indicator of the status of the relations between the two countries. Even as Delhi and Islamabad tussled, their routine did not see any change. “I am four years away from retiring as the passenger sales and reservation manager at the airline’s station office in Mumbai,” said Mansoor Sayed. “I am the seniormost staff here as far as experience is concerned. A job termination at this age would not be so easy as I do not know where to go now. My knees hurt and my family financially depends on me,” said Sayed, who has been making a 32-km journey to his Mittal Towers office in Nariman Point from Jogeshwari for the last 29 years.
On May 5, the airline received an official mail from Karachi that said it would have to suspend Mumbai operations due to the carrier’s inability to see higher traffic. The mail also hinted at a possible work termination of the staff employed at the Mumbai station office. “Humare toh jawani ke din nikal gae yaha kam karke. Abhi budhape me ye haal dekhna pad raha hai (We spent our youth in working for this airline. We are facing this crisis now during our old age),” Sayed rued.
The airline started its Karachi-Mumbai-Karachi services in January 1977. Senior officials who have worked with the airline remember it as one of the most profitable airlines then. With larger passenger capacity aircraft, more traffic and cargo trade, the airline would operate at least one flight a day from Mumbai to Karachi till early 2000s as opposed to two-a-week in the last six months.
“Our airline has always witnessed a lot of passenger traffic with people expecting to meet their friends and relatives in the two cities. The other passenger traffic constituted of the labour class who wanted to hit the Gulf countries or medical tourists looking to approach Indian hospitals for cheaper treatment. Over the years, various factors contributed to the fall of this premium airline service,” said PIA’s country manager Muhammad Baragzai, a Pakistani national.
For the staff at PIA, a turbulence in Indo-Pak relations reflected in the airline’s performance and sales. “Since procuring visas to travel between the two countries was not easy, the delays in obtaining visas led to a dip in passenger traffic,” said a senior staff member.
“In December 2001, when Indian Parliament in Delhi was attacked by terrorists, the Indian government suspended operations of the airline. We looked for new jobs till the airline absorbed us back in 2003. The situation was never the same after that as each major activity causing tension between the two countries affected our operations. The final blow came in 2008 after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks post which not only did we downsize the number of aircraft but PIA’s traffic was also majorly hit,” Sayed said.
The seven staff members, all Indian nationals, also rued the fact that traffic on the Mumbai-Karachi flight was always compared to that of the Delhi-Lahore flight. They claimed that despite showing better sales and operational capacity than their counterparts in Delhi, Mumbai had to bear the brunt of PIA’s cost-cutting measures.
The staffers said their last promotion was in 1999 and they had received no salary hikes since.
Three employees recalled having fought their way back into the office in 2013 after the airline’s attempt to retrench them. “Time has come to do the same again. We are seeking legal help to be able to ensure their jobs remain. If not, we will fight for a decent remuneration of the pending dues to the seven employees,” Baragzai added.
For the employees, who have worked with the PIA for at least 20 years, the office is an extension of home. “We would take time off for namaaz and we were allowed to work half days during Ramzan. That is why we have held on to our jobs for so long but are worried about what lies ahead,” said Ehsan Khan.
Satish Dalvi, who has put in 13 years with the PIA, said he always felt at home working with the airline. “For festive holidays, such as Ganeshotsav and Diwali, the airline was specifically considerate. It is sad that the performance of an airline that caters to an important international route is based on the relations between the two countries.”
“My eldest daughter is about to complete her engineering and aims to do post-graduation. After reading reports of the airline’s closure of Mumbai office, she asked me if she could study further. Being the only breadwinner of the family, what am I to say to this,” added Sohail Khan, another employee and resident of Andheri West.
With most of them nearing retirement, finding another job may not be easy at this point.
“I believe Allah will find a way for us. I am keeping a positive attitude and a smile on my face as that will help me keep going,” said Arshad Choralia, airport supervisor with the PIA.
“We are tired of being the scapegoats,” Baragzai said, adding: “It is time our pleas and concerns were heard and the airline resumed its service. There is a huge demand from the travellers for direct connectivity between Mumbai and Karachi and we were providing that. If not for us, the service should be resumed for the passengers.”