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Economic fallout: Pakistan’s aviation sector braces for Rs25b loss amid COVDI-19 travel ban

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Special flight to bring back at least 50 stranded Pakistanis today

ISLAMABAD: As Pakistan’s COVID-19 tally continues to rise, the country has joined the list of nations to impose restrictions on foreign air travel in bid to contain the spread of the highly contagious virus. Following a high-level meeting on Saturday, the government finally decided to shut down virtually all international air operations for the next two weeks.

As necessary as the drastic measure is, aviation officials in Pakistan are already bracing for billions of rupees worth of losses the travel ban is expected to cause. The world over commercial aviation is among the sectors hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions. Many airlines, including those as big as British Airways and Lufthansa, are already on life support in a matter of mere weeks.

According to officials of Pakistan’s Aviation Division, the country’s aviation sector would be no different. Speaking to The Express Tribune on condition of anonymity, they revealed the sector has already lost more than Rs10 billion in the last three weeks due to restrictions imposed by other countries.

“We have sent a report on the losses to the government,” said one official. “It shows that PIA has lost Rs8.5 billion in the first weeks of March while CAA has lost more than Rs4.5 billion.”

“We estimate the aviation sector could end up losing more than Rs25 billion during the two-week ban,” he warned.

The suspension, which went into effect at 8pm Saturday, is set to remain in place till April 4 for all foreign airlines and for a week for the country’s national flag carrier, according to the notice issued by the Civil Aviation Authority. This means more than 1,300 flights scheduled for the next seven days have been cancelled.

Foreign airlines operate as many as 980 flights a week to and from Pakistan, sources in the aviation sector revealed. Meanwhile, Pakistan International Airlines operates another 396 international flights to 15 countries on a regular schedule.

“More than half of these fly to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait,” PIA spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez told The Express Tribune. “Since the three countries have already had travel restrictions in place, the government decision will apply to 209 more flights,” he explained.

Talking to reporters on Saturday, Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on National Security Moeed Yusuf said the travel restrictions would only apply to international flights ferrying passengers, barring some exemptions. “Certain PIA flights that are currently in various countries in Europe and other parts of the world would be exempt from the suspension to allow them to return,” he said. “Around 200,000 Pakistanis are scheduled to return to the country over the next two weeks. The government is taking all possible steps to bring all Pakistanis stranded in foreign nations home.”

Yusuf added that cargo flights and diplomats travelling to Pakistan would also be allowed to enter Pakistan. In this regard, the CAA notice of the travel ban stated that diplomats and cargo flight staff will have to present a health declaration and undergo screening at the airport they land at.

Regarding the government’s earlier decision to demand a mandatory COVID-19 health certificate from international travellers upon entry, Yusuf said it was no longer in effect after Saturday’s decision. “The travellers will be screened at airports, where screening measures have been strengthened,” he added.

Meanwhile, the government has also started screening all domestic travellers at airports, aviation officials told The Express Tribune. According to them, health desks have been set up at all airports and paramilitary officials and medical staff have been deployed to ensure screening operations.

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