Islamabad Airport – Harassment, Bribery and Corruption

As you’ve read in my previous post I had a hell of a time getting flights into and back out of Pakistan thanks to the antics of their national airline. However I want to talk about what happened to me at Islamabad Airport as I was trying to leave the country.

I arrived at the airport just before 8am. On entering the airport I went through the first security check which was a single police officer standing at the main entrance checking your passport and ticket. No problems there. Once I got through there I had to proceed to a security check performed by the Pakistan Anti Narcotics Force. I was told to place my suitcase on a table.

The ANF Officer asked me where I had travelled from, but didn’t wait for the answer he proceeded to take a knife and start stabbing my suitcase. Which at this point was still locked. I’ve been to many airports around the world and this was the first time I’d ever had anyone stabbing my suitcase, I’m not entirely sure what this was meant to prove or check for. Before I had a chance to protest though his knifed broke in half as the idiot tried to stab the front plate of my suitcase which is metal. He then told me to open the suitcase up and proceeded to rifle through all my belongings throwing things onto the floor as he did so.

My suitcase contained a load of clothes, several cricket balls which I had purchased in Kashmir as gifts for some of the kids at Local Leagues, several books and a couple of small souvenirs which were packed in a small plastic bag which also contained one of my watches. When he discovered the cricket balls he proceeded to start sniffing each of them. I wasn’t aware human beings were actually able to smell narcotics in this manner, security forces normally use sniffer dogs. Anyway he kept tossing my belongings on the floor and the table until he was satisfied at which point I had to hurriedly pack everything back into my suitcase, I took care to make sure that all the items that were on the floor/table ended up back in my suitcase. It was only when I returned to the UK and opened up my suitcase that I realised the bastard had taken the small bag containing the watch and the souvenirs I’m positive he stole it because I packed away all the items that I could see he had tossed onto the floor/table.

Anyway after he had finished with me I proceeded to the next security check. This simply involved me placing my luggage through the x-ray machine and walking through a metal detector and being frisked by a police office. No problem there. After this I proceeded to get my luggage checked in and get my boarding pass. No real problems there.

I then had to proceed to Immigration. Where there were a load of Police Officers with the letters FIA ( Federal Investigation Agency ) emblazoned on their Uniforms. When I reached the immigration desk the officer asked me for my passport and boarding pass which I duly handed over. He then asked me where I had been staying during my visit. He then stared at me and asked me if I was the individual in the picture in my passport, and I said yes! He asked me for my date of birth. Which I provided. He then told me he thought my passport was fake because it wasn’t scanning. However he hadn’t yet tried to scan it! So I just looked at him. He then asked me a question “kuch aur deso?” which in my mind I translated as “do you have any other identification you want to show me?” to which I said no that’s my passport, and it should be fine since I’ve travelled all over the world on it. He kept repeating the question, and I kept replying as I had done.

Eventually after keeping me standing there for almost 40 minutes some of the other passengers in the queue behind me got rather rowdy. Someone shouted out “just give the bastard some money, that’s what he’s asking you for!” others in the queue started hurling abuse at the officer as well as the police in general. The ruckus caused a number of other FIA officers to walk over to see what was going on. They asked their colleague what the problem was and he told them my passport was fake and wasn’t scanning. To which I responded he hasn’t tried to scan it yet. Another officer, wondered over and took the passport from his colleague and scanned it through the machine first time, handed it to me, and told me to proceed. As I walked past the officer who had held me there the best part of an hour I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of him, which I wont repeat here.

Once I got through immigration I had to go through another frisking, and then another metal detector and being frisked once more. Once I got through all that I was able to proceed to the waiting lounge. At this point I felt really drained and quite angry. But I figured I’m through the worst of it, and looked back at the queue of people having to go through all the same security checks and actually felt sorry for them.

My visit to Kashmir left me with a very low opinion of Pakistani Police Officers – they’re all corrupt. It seems it’s impossible to travel anywhere without having to go through impromptu checkpoints set up by small groups of Pakistani police officers who aren’t checking anything just asking drivers to hand over money. They seem to target vehicles that have Kashmiri license plates (which being with letters AJK), in fact I can’t recall making a trip where our driver didn’t have to pay some police officer a bribe to let us travel around our own country which is quite depressing.

There have been wars fought by India and Pakistan over possession of Kashmir and as it stands the country is divided in two. The Indian controlled half of Kashmir is often referred to as “Indian Occupied” Kashmir, whereas the Pakistani side of Kashmir is referred to as “Azaad Kashmir” which means “Free Kashmir”, but the sad truth is that Kashmir is not a free state – not in any true sense of the word. It’s occupied by two nations, Indian and Pakistan, and both nations have committed atrocities against our people, and continue to do so. Growing up I used to fill in application forms that asked for ethnicity as “Pakistani” since it was always one of the check boxes and we were always taught that Kashmiri’s were Pakistani’s. If I learnt anything about myself on this trip its that I am of Kashmiri decent, and I’m definitely not Pakistani – its taken 29 years for me to learn the difference and that hurts.
Anyway I’m digressing, back to the airport.

I was sitting in the departure lounge waiting for the air plane to arrive. As usual it was delayed which meant sitting there for 4 hours! Whilst I was sitting there a gentleman in suit came and sat down next to me. I didn’t think anything of it until several armed police officers walked over to where I was sitting. My first reaction was “shit am I in trouble for calling that FIA guy a C…”, but it wasn’t me they were interested in. The officers walked straight up to the gentleman sitting next to me and proceeded to apologise to him for not meeting him at the entrance of the airport.

I listened to the conversation rather intently, I figured this guy must be someone really important. What I overheard, and then confirmed by talking to the gentleman at great length (i had four hours to kill) actually terrified me to the point where I wasn’t actually sure I wanted to get onto the plane. Here’s why…

The police officers had been sent by their senior officer to escort his friend “the gentleman” through airport security to the waiting lounge, and to ensure he wasn’t harassed by anyone. During the course of our conversation this gentleman went to great detail to explain what “not being harassed” meant.

When he normally travelled from Islamabad it meant he’s met out front by several officers. They take his passport and his ticket. One of the officers escorts the gentleman pass all the security checks to the waiting lounge. The others take all his luggage directly through the luggage check-in without it ever being opened or x-rayed. It’s checked in. They then take his passport and ticket and have it stamped at immigration and then take his documents up to him in the waiting lounge – he doesn’t normally go through immigration himself.

He went to great length boasting at how he doesn’t have a weight limit regardless of who he fly’s with, how on his last trip he was able to take close to 100 KG of luggage with him. I told him that must have been expensive, and he laughed and said “they don’t charge me anything … the police just load it onto the plane”. He was holding his boarding pass in his hand and I clearly see it was marked “Economy” just like mine. This meant was only entitled to 30 KG.

Why did this frighten me so much? Since 9/11 Airports around the world have been implementing more and more rigorous and some feel more draconian security measures to ensure that bombs and weapons cant be smuggled onto aircraft. As passengers we sometimes feel harassed by this or frustrated but we all like to think that hey everyone has to go through the same process and in the end it’s for our own safety – so we accept it.

At Islamabad airport though if your friends with a senior police officer none of the security checks or rules need apply to you. Your luggage isn’t even put through an x-ray machine. That scares me. It scares me a lot.

Many airlines British Airways, Emirates, US, Singapore etc. fly to and from airports in Pakistan. The pilots and cabin crew don’t work on check-in desks they rely on the local authorities to have conducted all the necessary security and safety checks to ensure no one gets a weapon or a bomb onto a plane, either in hand luggage or in the cargo hold. But if those security checks are routinely circumvented by certain people, either because its so easy to bribe officials, or because officials are happy to do favours for friends – then that puts us all in danger.

I believe that any airline that has assets travelling to and from airports in Pakistan needs to demand that something is done about this. I can tell you this – if a plane ever blows up or is hijacked after leaving an airport in Pakistan you don’t need to waste millions on exhaustive investigations to figure out how the “terrorists” got weapons or a bomb onto the plane; corruption amongst security personal at airports in Pakistan is culturally ingrained, I fear it isn’t a question of “if” it will happen. It’s a question of “when”. Unless the international community and airlines around the world do something about it. Ironically the FIA was created to combat this type of corruption and that’s the authority that handles such complaints or issues – yet I’ve seen with my own eyes how corrupt FIA officials are.

As for the important gentleman in the blue suit? I told him I thought he must be someone really important to get that kind of treatment. Turns out he’s unemployed living off benefits – he’s not a dignatory, not an official – just a nobody who happens to be the relative of a good friend of the head of police at the airport.

Why I will never fly with PIA again

This is the first in a series of three posts I’m writing about my recent trip to Kashmir. This post covers my feelings towards Pakistan International Airline and the why I’ll never use that airline again as long as I live! The second of the three posts will deal with what I witnessed with disgust and horror at Islamabad Airport on the return leg of my trip. Finally I’ll talk about the very positive experiences I had in Kashmir itself once we actually got there.

About six months ago my father suffered a heart attack, he made an excellent recovery but it gave him a lot to reflect on, as most of us do when were reminded of our own mortality. Anyway he decided he wanted to visit our home in Kashmir and for me and my brother and sister to travel there and learn a bit about our roots since none of us has ever visited there. In-point of fact I was actually born in Kashmir but I was 11 months old when my parents immigrated to Great Britain. Over last 29 years I’ve never really felt the urge or the desire to go back even though I’ve travelled all over the world.

My parents travelled out there about 5 weeks ago, the idea was they’d go out first and the get the house in order before me and my sisters got there. My parents flew out there on Emirates Airline via Dubai. However dad decided to book direct flights for me an my sisters to travel from Birmingham to Islamabad on Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

About a week before I was set to leave one of my colleagues, Hardeep, sent me a link to a Reuters news alert that stated that the European Union was considering disallowing PIA flights to EU destinations in view of technical and safety concerns due the ageing condition of the fleet of aircraft they operate. As you might imagine I was a bit concerned and contacted PIA to find out whether I might need to make alternative arrangements. They told there were no problems and pointed me to their official press release addressing these “so called” allegations appearing in certain sections of the press:

In fact the individual I spoke to went to great lengths to explain how it was all lies being spread by their competitors and there wasn’t a shred of truth to these rumours whatsoever. Personally I couldn’t give a toss, I just wanted to know and to hear from someone at the airline that this issue wasn’t going to affect me and my sisters.

We were set to leave on the Saturday 3rd March,however when I left work on Friday I got a call from my brother telling me there was a problem with our flights. I rushed home to discover that the UK Airport Authorities had ordered a ban on PIA fights and as such our flight was cancelled. I was livid. We phoned up PIA Headquarters in Karachi to discover that all flights from Birmingham were cancelled and weren’t going to be rescheduled for several days. I spent quite some time arguing with them and expressed how disgusted I was that they had in effect lied to me a week earlier. In the end they agreed to make alternative arrangements for me and my sisters but we would have to travel from Manchester to Lahore at 7am Sat Morning, this meant we had to arrive the airport at 4am, so we stayed up packed and my brother and a couple of my uncles drove us down to Manchester and we made the flight.

The flight itself was crap, I didn’t particularly like the attitude of the cabin staff they were quite rude in fact and very dismissive of passengers, something I’ve never experienced flying with any other airline – so this just added to the whole negative feeling towards the airline.

Anyway we arrived at Lahore at midnight local time, my father met us at the airport with another of my uncles and then we drove to where we live in Kashmir which took 7 hours! The drive was almost as long as the flight. I couldn’t sleep so I stayed awake the whole time.

During the course of my stay I had to daily check with the airline whether I was going to be able to fly back to the UK on the 17th March as I had originally planned, they refused point blank to refund the cost of the flight so that I could make alternative arrangements with another airline – which I thought was deplorable. Worse was the fact that because of the problems PIA was having the other airlines were faced with increased demand so even if I did get a ticket booked with another airline it would be several days after I actually needed to travel.

Then one of their agents made the mistake of suggesting that if I paid him a little more ( on the side ) he’d see to it that I got confirmed on the flight I wanted to. It was at that point I realised that some of the agents actually saw this as an opportunity to swindle money out of passengers who were already under a great deal of stress. I lost my temper and told him to go fuck himself and stormed off.

I couldn’t get through to their headquarters in Karachi from where I was in Kashmir, phone services were very temperamental, so I got my brother to call them up from the UK and basically pretend to be me. Eventually he managed to get their HQ to confirm me on my flight back. But again by the time I got the confirmation the flight was the next morning. So again I was packing in a hurry and having to travel to Islamabad Airport.

I’m just totally appalled with the way airline decided to abandon its passengers, I find it disgraceful that they still haven’t published a press release after the one I’ve linked to above either apologising or even trying to explain what has happened.

If anyone out there is considering travelling to Pakistan, please take my advise DONT travel with PIA. Make sure you travel with an Airline that actually gives a damn about its passengers and its reputation.