Flying from Gilgit to Islamabad
Flying in northern Pakistan isn’t just an ordinary commuter hop. On flights between Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi you simply take off, get served a light meal then land. Not so in the north. These flights are so much more than just a journey; they are like scenic joyflights for the eager tourists aboard, an important lifeline for the communities of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, and a challenge for the skilful pilots who captain the aircraft.
Northern Pakistan is home to three major airports; Gilgit, Chitral and Skardu. Gilgit and Skardu both receive flights from Islamabad, as well as a weekly flight connecting the two. Chitral receives flights from Islamabad and the provincial capital Peshawar. Recent news suggested that direct flights from Lahore and Karachi were being planned for 2018 to promote domestic tourism.
While newcomer Serene Air has expressed interest in operating flights to Skardu, as yet their services have not commenced, leaving Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) as the sole operator in this region. PIA operates a combination of Airbus A320 jets and ATR42 turboprops to Skardu, but the terrain surrounding Gilgit’s and Chitral’s runways means that only ATR42 can fly to those ports of call. The treacherous terrain means that flights can be (and often are) cancelled at the first sign of inclement weather. Some of PIA’s best pilots are assigned to these routes; many of them were trained by the Pakistan Air Force.
When heading to the northern areas of Pakistan I travelled by road to Gilgit and beyond to the Hunza Valley, and flew back from Gilgit to Islamabad. On the flight from Gilgit to Islamabad, if you are interested in the scenery (and who isn’t?) the key is to score a seat on the left side; you’ll be able to spot the best landmarks as the pilot points them out over the plane’s PA system.
Watching the sights slip by from the plane window brought a strange sense of closure to my trip. Geographical features that had taken hours to drive between on the road northbound slipped by in the reverse order in the space of just an hour; it reminded me of finishing a movie on VHS cassette tapes in the 1990s, then rewinding the whole thing.
Flights between Gilgit and Chitral and Islamabad can only be booked 45 days in advance and directly through the PIA booking office, not the website (due to the safety restrictions regarding flying conditions). Flights to Skardu can be booked through the website because of the larger aircraft which operates that route.