British Airways is set to resume services to Pakistan on Sunday after an 11-year lull in a victory for Prime Minister Imran Khan who had been seeking the airline’s return as a vote of confidence in his country’s struggling economy.
BA stopped flights to Pakistan following a 2008 terrorist attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, part of a bloody wave of extremist violence in the country that deterred foreign investors and forced businesses to move abroad.
A former cricket star who studied at the University of Oxford, Mr Khan had intervened personally with phone calls to lobby for the resumption of flights to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, said a senior government official. “He reached out to people in the UK and urged BA to return to Pakistan,” the official said.
Pakistan’s economy has been weakened by years of political uncertainty and international isolation over state-sponsored terrorism.
The country is facing the risk of a further fall in investment unless it can crack down more strongly on terrorism financing and avoid being included on a blacklist maintained by the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money laundering body.
In May, Islamabad announced that it had entered into a preliminary agreement for a $6bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund to help solve a severe balance of payments crisis triggered by a rise in oil prices and heavy spending on imports.
To secure the bailout, Mr Khan’s government is set to unveil an austerity budget on June 11 and announce painful reforms to cut a fiscal deficit hovering at about 7 per cent of gross domestic product.
Mr Khan has said this IMF bailout — Pakistan’s third since 2008 — will be the country’s last and has worked to convince the international community that Islamabad is reining in extremists operating on its soil.
“British Airway’s return to Pakistan sends a very good signal worldwide,” said Pakistan science and technology minister Fawad Chaudhry. “It shows that the world has accepted the success that we have had in fighting terrorism.”
The London-Islamabad route will cater to the UK’s population of more than 1m people of Pakistani origin. The route will be “popular with businesses in both countries, as well as the British Pakistani community who want to visit, or be visited by, their relatives”, said Andrew Brem, British Airways chief commercial officer.
While the return of BA is good news for Pakistan’s aviation sector, international airlines operating in the region are still reeling from heavy losses after a terrorist attack in India earlier this year brought the two countries to the brink of war.
Pakistan restricted its airspace — a vital corridor for traffic from Europe to Asia — in late February after India launched an air strike in response to a suicide bombing in Kashmir that killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops.
The airspace closure has forced airlines to take costly and lengthy detours. Mr Khan had suggested that the restrictions may be lifted after the conclusion of the Indian elections, which ended on May 23, but the ban remains in place.
“If British Airways is flying its own aircraft back in Pakistan, it sends a positive signal that Pakistan is no longer on a blacklist of sorts,” said Mark Martin, founder of aviation group Martin Consulting. “But the underlying challenge is the airspace closure.”