Pakistani expats face more delays over rapid PCR tests
Pakistan aviation authority allows airlines to set up test facilities, but this takes time.
Pakistan airports have rapid PCR test facilities for passengers flying into the country - the problem is meeting mandatory requirements for those flying out. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Pakistani expats are finding that catching a flight back to the UAE is not as easy as they thought it would be once services resumed.

It’s been five days since the announcement by the UAE allowing conditional return for Pakistani expats wanting to return from Pakistan. But several prospective passengers still find themselves stranded at various airports in Pakistan due to the absence of rapid PCR testing facilities.

“The issue is that Pakistan doesn't have rapid PCR facility even in the private sector,” said an official at Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority. “At the airports, the government performs Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) of all inbound passengers.”

When the airlines came to know that rapid PCR test is required, hundreds of passengers were denied boarding passes to travel to UAE for failing to produce PCR test results. “Many passengers were offloaded,” said the official. “The airlines’ ground handling agents didn't intimate passengers to come five hours earlier, as normally only two hours are required for all processes, including security checks, boarding pass collection and immigration.”

As per Pakistani media reports, more than 300 passengers from Islamabad and 70 passengers from Karachi were barred from boarding a flight to Dubai.

Regulatory action

CAA has said it will provide space to UAE-approved laboratories at all major airports to conduct PCR tests. At Islamabad airport, “CAA has given counters to the airlines to conduct these tests,” said the official.

This came days after the regulator said Pakistan’s airports were unable to meet UAE’s requirement of a rapid PCR test four hours prior to departure. “The relevant health authorities do not have a rapid PCR testing facility available at the airports,” said the Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) in a letter. “As a consequence, airline operators have been unable to board passengers on flights to Dubai.

“Our health authorities do not have the resources to conduct rapid PCR tests in Pakistan and only Rapid Antigen Testing is being used as a method of testing for arriving passengers at Pakistani airports.”

Airblue, Pakistan’s largest private carrier, has made Rapid Antigen Test facility available at its check-in counters at airports in Pakistan for passengers traveling to the UAE. Certain travel agencies and sections of social media have said that Sharjah airport is accepting passengers who have taken an antigen test.

“Currently, rapid PCR test is required for Dubai only - people can travel to Sharjah with rapid antigen test as told by Air Arabia staff,” said a user on Twitter.

Gulf News could not independently verify the claims as Air Arabia did not immediately respond to a query. Both Etihad and Emirates require passengers to take a COVID-19 PCR rapid test four hours before the departure of their flight.

Bookings hit

Due to the ongoing confusion, bookings for UAE-bound flights have taken a hit, according to travel agencies. Aviation experts were expecting the route to take off in a big away, given the months of pent-up travel demand.

Fahad Masood, a Pakistan-based aviation analyst, was predicting bookings to jump by 35-40 per cent. He believes that travelers will take maximum advantage of this time to travel for business or leisure.

Given the ‘Delta’ variant situation, the current relaxation of norms may not be very long-lasting, said Masood.

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