LAHORE -

PIA Umrah flights are being operated below the seating capacity due to certain reasons. No extra flight has been included in the operation so far due to non availability of passengers, it is learnt.

Sources in the airlines disclosed on Sunday that during last year’s corresponding period, at least 10 to 12 extra flights per month were operated to transport the pilgrims for Umrah from Lahore alone.

Speaking about the reasons, a travel agent said that the Saudi government has drastically cut the number of visas for Umrah during coming Ramadan to just 25,000. Last year this number stood at 125,000.

Secondly, many people cannot apply for the Umrah visa because a good number of passports are lying pending with Immigration and Passport Department, Islamabad. Thirdly, travel agents have increased the rates for Umrah visa and it was being sold at Rs25,000 to 30,000.

A PIA officer seeking anonymity said that the PML-N’s upcoming government should take up the issue with the Saudi government to increase the number of Umrah visas for Pakistan since it would be a matter of big loss not only for the PIA and other airlines but for poor pilgrims also.

He said that the PIA would be bound to operate its Jumbo and B-777LR and B-777ER planes for Umrah operation whether or not there was enough passenger load on the flights, causing huge losses to the national flag carrier.

A travel agent said that the PIA had already offered minimal Umrah fare of Rs48,000 till May 30 but now due to the prevailing situation this discounted fare could be extended till June 15. By the coming Ramadan the fare could go down further because the Saudi government has minimised the number of visas to 25,000 for all Pakistan.

The KSA has cut down Umrah visas to 0.5 million for the entire world, while last year this number was 1.35 million. The Saudi authorities say that since they are carrying out extension of ‘Haramain’ so less number of visas would ensure that they are able to provide pilgrims adequate boarding and lodging facilities. The Saudi government has also asked travel agents to ensure the return of the Umrah pilgrims’ first batch they would send; otherwise, no new visa would be issued to them for further operations.

A travel agent said that there was a general trend among the people from some areas that they try to slip in Saudi Arabia after performing Umrah. At present there were about 6,000 Pakistanis in the jails of Saudi Arabia who were held by the Saudi authorities for overstay. Now the Saudi government has asked the Pakistani government to transport back those overstaying pilgrims. The PIA has taken responsibility for 100 such passengers, to transport them back to Pakistan.

Travel agents have appealed to the coming government of Nawaz Sharif to take up the matter of less number of visas with the Saudi government and resolve the issue. Sources said that travel agents have issued 52,000 tickets to the pilgrims across the country for Umrah during the coming Ramadan and these tickets are non-refundable. Tickets are issued by 12 airlines.

A PIA officer seeking anonymity claimed that flights were not under-loaded as 95 percent passengers load was being achieved on most of the flights.