Paul Lewis/KARACHI

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) says that it is ready to decide on the long-awaited replacement aircraft for its Boeing 747-200s. It has been spurred on by an end of year boost in profits and the need to combat increased competition after the government opened up access by foreign carriers to Islamabad and Lahore.

The state-run national carrier expects to announce an operating profit of Rs700 million ($15.2 million) for the 18 months ending 31 December, after writing off accumulated losses of Rs4.6 billion up to June 1997. PIA projects a further profit increase of Rs2 billion during its revised January-December 1999 accounting year.

"The numbers need to add up to a level to sustain a fleet replacement," says PIA chairman Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. "We did a study in 1997, but they didn't add up. We're now confident that we're able to sustain this. A decision will be made in the next two months."

PIA is debating whether to order four to six new Boeing 747-400s or six to eight smaller-capacity 777-200ERs or Airbus A340/A330s.

A major factor in its thinking is the lifting of restrictions from 1 January on incumbent foreign carriers operating to Pakistan's two main northern international gateways. Swissair and KLM are each adding two weekly services to Islamabad and Lahore, in addition to Karachi, and Gulf and Emirates are each adding seven flights. The latter, along with Qatar Airways, now also has access to Peshawar.

"The environment is again changing for us," says Abbasi. "A decision is now very critical." PIA was ready to announce the purchase of three new ex-Philippine Airlines' 747-400s on 12 December, but Abbasi says: "Boeing couldn't put a timeframe or value on the modifications."

New aircraft are needed to replace PIA's six Pratt & Whitney JT9D-powered 747-200s, which it wants to retire over the next six months. As an interim measure, the carrier is looking to lease four or five secondhand -300s or -400s for 12-18 months and is in talks with Cathay Pacific Airways, Korean Air and Singapore Airlines.

PIA's second re-fleeting priority for 1999 is to replace its 13 Fokker F27s, now averaging 35 years old, with eight new 70-seat aircraft for use on domestic and secondary regional routes. The carrier has ruled out ordering a regional jet.

"We want a turboprop, and the two choices are the ATR-72 or the Bombardier Dash 8-400," says Abbasi. "We'll probably end up leasing the aircraft."

Source: Flight International