KARACHI/ISLAMABAD - Partial resumption of PIA flights picked up Monday as 17 planes took to skies amid brighter prospects of initiation of formal talks between government and protesting employees for permanent resolution of the issue. The grinding strike by Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) employees protesting against government plans to privatise the national flag carrier kept all flight operations totally ceased for five days.

But the back-channel contacts and public pressure now seems to have worked as the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of PIA announced resumption of operations for Umrah pilgrims. The missing protesters, believed to be picked up by government agencies, have also returned home. However, the public posture of the government remains inflexible as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif yesterday reiterated they would not show any flexibility toward the protesters unless they call off strike unconditionally.

On Sunday night, a warning letter about the application of the Pakistan Essential Services (Maintenance) Act, 1952, was delivered to striking employees to make them aware that their strike was illegal, PIA spokesman Daniyal Gilani said yesterday. PIA operates 120 domestic and international flights from the countrywide airports on daily basis. Gilani said that 17 flights including domestic and Umrah flights were operated on Monday. The airline operated three domestic and 14 international flights, 10 of them for the Umrah pilgrims.

However, PIA employees voiced concerns that proper safety protocol had not been followed to put the planes in the air. PIA engineers warned the management against operating flights without ensuring the aircraft’s maintenance protocols as it may cause serious safety hazards. Around 250 Umrah pilgrims were stranded at the Jeddah Airport after the PIA employees went on strike which intensified after the killing of their two fellow workers in Karachi on the first day of strike during a protest against the government.

The first flight PK-731 from the Karachi Airport left for Saudi Arabia on Monday to bring back the stranded pilgrims. Earlier the same day, flight PK 732 arrived at Karachi airport at 1:50pm ? nearly 12 hours later than its scheduled arrival time ? carrying pilgrims from Jeddah. JAC Chairman Sohail Baloch told the media yesterday that keeping in views the difficulties being faced by Umrah pilgrims they have unanimously decided to resume the flight operation for the pilgrims. He said that PIA staffers and other relevant employees were directed to return to their duties for this purpose. But he made it clear that the flight resumption was partial and exclusively for the pilgrims, and their protest will continue.

Baloch told The Nation yesterday that they cancelled their Monday’s rally for the recovery of the four missing workers after their return. He said JAC office bearer Hidayat Ullah was released by unknown persons late Sunday night at Nagan Chowrangi in Karachi. The other three workers abducted last week were named Zamir Chandio, Mansoor and Saif. Hidayat Ullah told media persons he was unaware about the abductors but alleged they were picked up on government’s behest. “Unknown culprits wearing masks abducted us from the protest site and we were kept at unknown place blindfolded,” he said, adding that none of the workers were tortured in detention.

Baloch in his media talk called on the prime minister to nominate his representative for negotiations with JAC. “From day one it has been our demand that prime minister should hold direct talks with JAC but if he is busy then he can nominate someone else for the dialogue.” He added that the PM was wrongly given the impression that PIA employees were happy with the privatisation. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a high-level meeting in Islamabad yesterday to review the matters relating to the PIA crisis. He was briefed on the meeting of Privatisation Commission Chairman Mohammad Zubair with JAC in Karachi and the demands the protesters.

The prime minister praised the role Mushahid Ullah had played in weakening the protest by dividing the protesters and his making the pilots association agree to start flight operations. The meeting, attended by select federal ministers including Ch Nisar Ali, Ishaq Dar and Mushahid Ullah, decided not to show any flexibility and talk to protest leasers to address their genuine concerns only when they called off strike unconditionally.

Sources informed The Nation that it was further decided to issue show-cause notices and take stern disciplinary action against those continuing strike.

The PM expressed satisfaction over the partial restoration of flight operations and directed the authorities concerned to fully restore these operations in a couple of days.

The Prime Minister’s concern toward the restoration of flight operation could be judged well from the fact that the media section dealing with the news of Prime Minister  A PML-N source informed The Nation that PM was so concerned about the PIA strike that he was himself monitoring the situation and his media office was dedicated to vigorously publicise the partial resumption of flights. Following the directives, it even released video clips of planes taking off and landing on Islamabad airport

There has been mess at all the airports during the week of strike. The private airlines took full advantage of the situation and looted the passengers with both hands. Despite partial resumption of flights, no visible decrease in the highly inflated fares of the private airlines, including Air Blue and Shaheen Air. Staff Reporter from Lahore add: Besides opening of Islamabad and Karachi head offices of the PIA, the booking offices of the airline in Lahore also started working yesterday but with thin attendance.

The PIA flight operation in Lahore resumed partially when three flights took off from Allama Iqbal International Airport (AIIAP) to different destinations, as per PIA spokesman. Voicing concerns about the flight safty, President of Peoples Unity of PIA employees Lahore, Sajid Gujjar said, “No doubt few flights operated from AIIAP but all these were operated in sheer violation of safety rules of the CAA”.  He said that PIA flight PK-743 operating between Lahore-Madina was operated without ground engineers. It is practice that two ground engineers accompany the flight on above said sector but PK-743 was a ferry flight and flew without any ground engineer. Aviation secretary issued the waiver who was present on the occasion.

In Saudi Arabia, Saudi engineers are not available to check the flights and issue NOC to fly back to Pakistan; it will be highly unsafe to operate flight without ground engineers, Mr Sajid said. PIA spokesman claimed that three flights were operated by PIA on Monday form Lahore: PK-731 (Lahore to Jeddah), PK-743 (Lahore-Madina) and PK-759 (Lahore-Jeddah). He said that all these flights were sent to bring back the stranded pilgrims from Saudi Arabia. Two flights (PK-742 and PK-748) bringing pilgrims from KSA landed at Lahore airport, he added. Another flight PK-740 landed at Islamabad airport from Jeddah carrying around 350 pilgrims, the spokesman said. He was of the view that more than 20 percent operation has been resumed since flights from other airports like Karachi and Islamabad have also started operating.