Living outside Pakistan, there isn’t really any reason one would hear of PIA, or know that Pakistan International Airlines exists. They are not known for their efficiency like Lufthansa, or for their extensive movie selection like Emirates. But if one were to hear about PIA, here are some of the things one might find out:
First, PIA is the only airline offering a direct flight between Islamabad and London. This fact alone is enough to ignore all others you might hear about the airline.
When purchasing your ticket, it is very helpful to be white, as you will most likely get whisked away from the indefinite queue in which all others are waiting, and have your own window opened up just for you. Oh, sorry, would that make you feel uncomfortable? You can always protest and insist that you will await your turn with everyone else.
The same characteristic helps when checking in at the airport: you get ushered into the person-less line labeled “business plus” regardless of what kind of a ticket you hold.
It helps to be a single (the technical term is “unaccompanied”) female because in the three subsequent security, immigration and baggage checks, you get to go to the “ladies” line, where... you guessed it, no one is in front of you! You dare not look back at the line of 50 + men and families who are shifting their weight from one foot to the other, waiting for their turn.
Once you’ve used up your “get out of queue for free” card, you can seat yourself in the lounge area along with all other travelers. There are no gates, no signs to indicate if you are in the right place, except one that says “Facilitator.” Hmmm...
You sit and a tea boy comes around and ask you “coffeetea?” which is pretty much a compound word here. When you say tea, he arrives 15 minutes later with a silver tray, containing your beverage and a selection of saran-wrapped white bread sandwich and sponge-looking thing ominously named “yellow cake” neither of which you should dare to eat. You sit and wait for your 10:35 departure while the lounge swells with hundreds of people. At 10:25 the “facilitator” announces it’s time to board, whereupon all 300 passengers, strollers, wheelchairs, crying babies and children, grandmothers who are actually trying to fly to Karachi or Birmingham form a massive herd at the facilitators’ desk.
You funnel your way down the ramp onto the tarmac where your passport and ticket, is checked for the fifth time, and those going to other destinations are sorted out and sent back upstairs through the herd. Nothing but a small inconvenience.
You board a bus which screeches up to your plane. As you exit the bus your ticket and passport get checked one more time, and 10 meters later, as you ascend the stairway to your plane, a guy with a black beret, gray beard and aviator glasses gives them another once over. He shakes his head “no” and hopefully by this time you’ve realized that in Pakistan that actually means yes, and you don’t panic.
Finally, you’ve made it on board. You are the 10th person or so (thanks to your unaccompanied white female status), and because you’ve heard the horror stories about the toilets on PIA flights, you might hurry to use a clean one and prepare your bladder for the trip.
In the toilet there is no soap, but there is a huge sign over the toilet imploring that you not throw metals, glass, razor blades, cloth or plastic bottles into the toilet. Sanitary napkins are apparently fine.
Later on you will discover that smoking in the lavatories, is in fact still tolerated and practiced on PIA flights, despite the typical red-strike over a smoking cigarette picture on the mirrors and side panels.
Some other air travel norms you may have taken for granted also do not apply on PIA. For example, you are welcome to stroll about the cabin about 10 seconds after take off. You are also allowed to keep piles of stuff right in front of your feet, and your neighbors’ feet. You are not required to sit and buckle up until the wheels have been prepared for landing, and even though you will most likely stand at the luggage carousel for two hours, it’s frowned upon (literally) to get out of your seat while the plane is still taxiing and start rummaging through the overhead bin, but no one will try to stop you.
After a Koran recitation the plane ascends smoothly commencing the 8 hour trip to London. Heading northwest over Afghanistan, the pilot speaks lengthily in Urdu, of which you only understand “In-Sh-Allah” and “Maharbani” and “Shukria” (“god willing”, “please” and “thank you,” respectively). In the English translation you learn that the captain gave very detailed explantation about the winds, weather, turbulence and adjustments he prepares to make and how that will effect our trip. Very nice. He peppers his lecture with announcements of how many more miles you have until the Afghan airspace has been traversed. You imagine in Urdu that went something like: gentlemen (not ladies) we are about 300 km from Ashkhabad and Inshallah will make it over the airspace of Afghanistan. Not too reassuring.
The cabin crew is pretty much male. And not gay either. Also not too reassuring.
Children of pre-school age are allowed to sit on your lap. Or your neighbor’s lap.
Lunch is served and, you are offered choices. “Vegetarian, please”. You are delighted to receive a tray of steamed jasmine rice with curried peas and potatoes and perhaps one green bean gingerly laid across the top. You dig in. Oh shit! Not a green bean! That was a chili pepper! Whatever they say about PIA, they can’t say that the food is bland.