A PIA plane takes off from Kabul International Airport. File / AFP
Gulf Today Report
Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) suspended flights to Kabul on Thursday after what it called heavy-handed interference by Taliban authorities. The suspension took place as the Taliban government ordered the airline, the only international carrier operating regularly out of the Afghan capital, to cut ticket prices to the levels of before the fall of the Western-backed Afghan government in August.
"Our flights frequently faced undue delays because of the unprofessional attitude of the Kabul aviation authorities," Abdullah Hafeez Khan, the PIA spokesman said. The route will remain suspended until "the situation becomes conducive," he added.
PIA had faced criticism for charging more than $1,200 for a one-way, 40-minute flight from Kabul to Islamabad.
Earlier, the Taliban-led Afghan government has warned PIA and the Kam Air to reduce the fares of Kabul to Islamabad flights or “they would be blocked from landing in Afghanistan.”
An official notification issued on Thursday from the Afghan ministry said that it received “scores of complaint” that the PIA and the Kam Air are charging Rs200,000 for a two-way ticket between Islamabad and Kabul.
With most airlines no longer flying to Afghanistan, tickets for flights to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, have been selling for as much as $2,500 on PIA, according to travel agents in Kabul, compared with $120-$150 before.
The Afghan transport ministry said in a statement prices on the route should "be adjusted to correspond with the conditions of a ticket before the victory of the Islamic Emirate" or the flights would be stopped. It urged passengers and others to report any violations.
A senior official of the Afghan aviation ministry said that the Taliban government took the unilateral decision after Pakistan Embassy in Kabul paid no heed to their complaints.
“We demand PIA, Kam airlines to restore the previous rates of the tickets or they would be banned from landing in Afghanistan,” the notification said.
Flights between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been severely limited since Kabul airport was reopened last month in the wake of the chaotic evacuation of more than 100,000 Westerners and vulnerable Afghans following the Taliban victory.
Abdullah, a 26-year-old employee of a pharmaceuticals company, said the PIA flights had been "a tiny window" for Afghans trying to leave the country. "We are in bad need of these flights. The borders are closed, now if the airport is closed, it is like we are all in a cage," he said.
PIA, which runs chartered flights to Kabul rather than regular commercial services, said it had maintained the flights on humanitarian grounds and faced insurance premiums of as much as $400,000 as Kabul was treated as a warzone by insurers.
The special PIA flights have been used mostly by NGOs and charities, some of which have helped at-risk Afghans to flee, but have been irregular and tickets difficult to purchase for ordinary passengers. "We would pay more than $400,000 as insurance premium which could only be possible if 300 passengers are available," Khan said. The price was around $150 before the Taliban takeover. No comment was immediately available from Kam Air.
PIA said that ever since the new Taliban government was formed, its staff in Kabul had faced last-minute changes in regulations and flight permissions and intimidating behaviour from Taliban commanders.
It said its country representative had been held at gunpoint for hours in one incident and was only freed after the Pakistan embassy in Kabul intervened.
With a mounting economic crisis adding to worries about Afghanistan's future under the Taliban, there has been heavy demand for flights out, made worse by repeated problems at land border crossings into Pakistan.
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The US alone spent $145 billion on development in Afghanistan since 2002, according to reports by the US special inspector general for Afghanistan. Still, there were signs of increasing hopelessness.
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