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Pakistan airports in chaos as national airline staff strike

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
File photo shows a Boeing 777-200 passenger plane operated by Pakistan International Airlines.

Flight operations across Pakistan have come to a near standstill as staff of national flag carrier, PIA, staged walkout protest against the death of two of their colleagues.

Danial Gilani, a spokesman for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), confirmed that the flights were suspended as employees went on strike at airports in major cities across the country on Wednesday.

"Everything is shut now and flight operations have come to a complete halt," Gilani said.

The angry protesters at Karachi Airport chanted anti-government slogans and called on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to reverse the bill that would make the carrier a public limited company.

Islamabad has already enacted the so-called Essential Services law, which bans unions for six months from staging national strikes. 

Meanwhile, Suhail Baluch, a union leader of Pakistan's national airline, has vowed to continue protest until their demands are met.

Reacting to developments, PIA Chaiiman Nasser Jaffer during a recent interview with a local news channel on Tuesday night offered to resign.

"From this day on, my conscience does not allow me to stay as chairman of this organisation," Jaffer said, adding, "Two people lost their lives. I don't think anything worse than this could have happened."

This came a day after at least two workers were shot dead and several more wounded at Karachi Airport on Tuesday when security forces crushed a protest against privatization plans. However, authorities denied opening fire at demonstrators in the volatile city. 

Pakistani security forces baton charge on employees of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) during a protest near Karachi International Airport in Karachi on February 2, 2016. (AFP photo)

In early December last year, Pakistan announced plans to privatize its national carrier in 2016, following years of increasing losses and mismanagement that have badly tarnished the airline's reputation both in the country and worldwide.

Pakistani Privatization Minister Mohammad Zubair had said the plan to privatize the PIA would get underway as of July 2016.

As a preliminary measure before the plan goes fully into gear, the government has converted the PIA’s state-owned status to a “commercial entity” through an ordinance, but stopped short of announcing its privatization plans.

The move sparked a fierce backlash among the majority of the airline’s 15,000 employees, who subsequently held protests at major airports across the country on Monday and Tuesday.

The PIA is now suffering from frequent flight cancellations and delays and has been involved in numerous controversies over the years, including a case in which one of its pilots was jailed in Britain in 2013 for being drunk.

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