On an average, one 48-seat passenger ATR takes off for Gilgit from Islamabad every day. As growing commerce and tourism attract both domestic and foreign passengers to the Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) region, the demand outweighs the supply. PIA being the only carrier on this route plays a monopolising role in who reaches and when. There are two road routes but Naran is only accessible between June and October, while the Karakoram Highway is victim to many landslides and blockages.
The interesting part plays out when we look closely at how this role is optimised and to whose benefit. Officially, there are 48 confirmed passengers on a given day. However, the use of influence is a common practice, thereby many a time extra seats are confirmed. In that instance the people with influence certainly travel, while the rest appear as the 49th passenger and are bumped off the flight and confirmed for the next day. This means that the flight next day is overbooked once again and may face a similar situation.
The above situation becomes more complicated when a flight is cancelled due to extreme weather conditions, which is a common occurrence in G-B. Now 48 passengers have missed their flight, adding on the backlog, and continue to try their luck as chance passengers on the next flight. Things complicate further when we intently observe how a ticket is booked. Considering a massive demand for seats, ticketing becomes a lucrative opportunity. An under-the-table market begins and non-registered agents come into picture. When the PIA portal shows all 48 seats booked for a particular day, travellers are guided to contact these agents who charge Rs3,000 in cash, on average, for the ticket. Hence, it would not be incorrect to presume that agents with the help of PIA officials book these tickets and collectively benefit from the cash generated.
In the past two weeks, I have noticed another trend: two flights are scheduled on Sundays but the second gets cancelled. Thereby the backlog of flyers increases that may not necessarily be because of the weather but a technical strategy.
In this entire picture, who is burdened the most are non-influential locals, including mothers with children and elderly persons, and the entire G-B that could have benefited from those travellers who are indirectly discouraged to travel.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2017.