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    South Asia
     Jun 22, 2011

Nasair link reverses flight from Pakistan
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider

KARACHI, Pakistan - Nasair, a Saudi Arabia-based low-cost airline and the country's first private carrier, on June 18 began flights between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, with its first flight from Riyadh to Karachi.

Nasairís initial target is the over 200,000 pilgrims, of a total of 1.6 million people, travelling between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia each year. It plans to extend its reach to other Pakistani cities, including Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar.

The arrival of Nasair is a reversal of the retreat from strife-torn Pakistan by international carriers. Singapore Airlines rolled back its operations in the South Asian country last year due to security threats and an economic slowdown, while British Airways stopped flights in 2008 just months after German airline Lufthansa curtailed flights to Karachi. That left a near monopoly for state-run

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), which now may lose some customers to Nasair.

Karachi is the 19th international destination for Nasair, which although low cost offers passengers a full array of services, including a competitive fare, online booking, seat selection and online excess baggage services. Speaking at the launching ceremony, Nasair sales director Turki Al Jawini recognized the importance of the southern Pakistani city, the country's commercial center, as a regional hub.

"We assessed the growing number of passengers and hence we are announcing our 19th and 20th international destinations - Karachi and Lahore," The Express Tribune reported Al Jawini as saying.

Nasair plans daily flights from Karachi and Lahore to Jeddah and Riyadh with an advanced fleet of Airbus A320, offering introductory fares of 499 Saudi riyals (US$133) inclusive of taxes.

Nasair operates 500 flights on 18 international and six domestic routes. In the past three years, the airline has grown its business 45% annually, as it introduced an average of five new international destinations each year. Since its inception in 2007, Nasair has carried more than 5 million passengers, its aircraft utilization increasing from six hours per day in 2008 to 12 hours this year.

Around 5.7 million people travel with Pakistan's national carrier, PIA, each year, of which 0.8 million, or 14%, travel to Saudi Arabia. Nasair will look to compete on price to attract passengers from existing operators, including Saudi Arabian Airlines, while further stimulating the market.

Nasair's introductory fare of 11,477 rupees inclusive of all taxes, is less than one-quarter of PIA's fares, which range between 55,000 rupees (Karachi to Saudi Arabia) and 65,000 rupees (Islamabad to Saudi Arabia).

Loss-making PIA is reliant on government funds. Its accumulated losses were 96.6 billion rupees (US$1.1 billion) as of March 2011, up from 73 billion rupees in 2008. Revenues last year were 12 billion rupees below target at 107.5 billion rupees, while fuel and oil costs surged to 44.7 billion rupees from 31.5 billion rupees a year earlier.

Despite the advent of private carriers in Pakistan in the early 1990s, the government has done little to foster the local aviation industry, although it pays 1 billion rupees in taxes and more than 700 travel agencies operate in the country. Only 18 out of 42 airports are functional and just nine are equipped to cater to international traffic.

The war on terror has had devastating effects on the travel business, as many countries have declared Pakistan an unsafe area, with even hardier business visitors deterred by frequent news of bomb blasts and suicide attacks.

Twenty-nine foreign airlines closed their offices in Pakistan after US-led attacks against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan following the September 2001 attacks on New York. Though there are no direct flights to the US from Pakistan, the PIA intensified security checks for United States-bound passengers last year, and it is becoming more difficult and taking longer for Pakistanis to obtain visas to visit Western countries.

The arrival of Nasair in Pakistan expands the network of links between the two countries. Saudi Arabia had long funded madrassas, or religious schools, in Pakistan, with the number proliferating in recent years, while thousands of Pakistani soldiers and mercenaries are hired by Riyadh for both internal and external security roles. (See Pakistan marches to Saudi tune, Asia Times Online, June 3, 2011).

Syed Fazl-e-Haider (http://www.syedfazlehaider.com) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan (2004). He can be contacted at [email protected]

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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