Disappointing from start to finish: A review of Pakistan International Airlines’ 777 in Executive Economy from Lahore to London
While we at TPG love to stay on top of the very latest and greatest innovations in the world’s leading airline products, we are also curious about lesser-known airlines that have kept the same product for many, many years without innovation. On a recent trip to Pakistan, I jumped at the chance to try the national carrier’s best product on a flagship route. There was little information online, and all I could determine was that Pakistan International Airlines had been flying the same business-class product for a long time, and it was likely to be very, very outdated.
So what would the experience be like? Vintage charm from the glory days or flying, or an airline desperately in need of joining 2019?
PIA flies to several location in Europe including Barcelona (BCN), Copenhagen (CPH) and Paris (CDG) as well as three destinations in the U.K.: London (LHR), Manchester (MAN) and Birmingham (BHX) from their various bases in Pakistan, including Islamabad (ISB), Lahore (LHE) and Karachi (KHI).
The airline does not belong to any global alliance, nor can you use any major mileage currencies to book seats. So I looked at revenue fares, which were not even displayed on major flight search platforms like Google Flights, forcing me to search on the airline’s own website instead.
It’s surprisingly difficult to book a flight with PIA in any class. If the route does not operate daily and you search on a day the flight doesn’t operate, it is likely to indicate the route does not exist, as it does not suggest alternate days when the flight may operate and/or have seats for sale.
When I did manage to find seats for sale on a particular date, I discovered that PIA had renamed its business class “Executive Economy” on several routes. While the airline doesn’t offer a traditional premium economy product like British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, it seems that the airline simply rebranded its business-class product as a premium economy one on certain flights.
While still considerably more expensive than economy seats on the same flight, round-trip fares in Executive Economy from the U.K. to Pakistan start from around $1,500, which is slightly more than British Airways World Traveller Plus (premium economy) fares to Pakistan and around 40% cheaper than their competitors in proper business class on the likes of leading carriers like Etihad and Oman Air. I played around with fares, routes, dates and prices (no easy feat on PIA’s awful website) and discovered the lowest price was a one-way fare from Lahore to London for around $610. A one-way fare in the other direction was significantly more expensive. We paid for this flight with The Platinum Card® from American Express, which earns 5x points on airfare booked directly through the airline or Amex Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year).
From what I could gather, while PIA had changed the name of their most premium product from “business class” to “Executive Economy,” everything else about the experience appeared to be the carrier’s “proper” business class. This was an intriguing concept: Was I about to score a really cheap business-class fare or an outdated and comparatively expensive premium economy fare?
Online check-in was not available for this flight, though PIA advised me by email that I should arrive at least four hours before departure because of queues and security checks. This filled me with fear at the thought of a horrendous airport experience with hours spent in line, though I had observed when landing at Lahore Airport a few days earlier that, for inbound passengers at least, it was a small and surprisingly efficient airport that I sailed through quickly. Thinking four hours for an outbound journey was excessive, I hedged my bets and made sure I arrived around two and a half hours before departure.
Although Lahore Airport is an older design, I thought the style was charming.
The city’s sole airport has surprisingly few flights each day despite having a population of around 11 million people.
There were plenty of people milling around outside, perhaps because only ticketed passengers were allowed inside.
Here began the first of a seemingly never-ending routine of security and boarding-pass checks that became increasingly frustrating. First was a check of my itinerary to even enter the terminal, which is not unusual for airports in this part of the world. Next was an X-ray scan of all bags before they were even checked in, and all passengers had to walk through a metal detector, again common in this part of the world. Then came another check of my itinerary, barely 10 yards after the last one. Then there was a physical check of all bags — not just those that were flagged by the X-ray, this was a completely separate section.
After those four checks, I was finally through to the check-in area. The checks were only just beginning.
PIA had separate check-in desks for each flight, and I quickly located my desk for London.
There was no separate line for Executive Economy passengers, but I was quickly helped by a friendly check-in agent.
Though he printed a boarding pass for me that said “Executive Economy” on it, he kept talking about how I was in business class, which excited me, as I began to think that the experience would be closer to business class than premium economy.
I asked him about lounge access — this would be expected with a business-class product, but only a handful of airlines offer lounge access with a premium economy ticket. I was pleased when he confirmed I could access the lounge.
I then headed toward passport control, where there was another check of my boarding pass and itinerary before I could even get to the immigration queue. The immigration officer was chatty and eager to hear all about my experience in Pakistan in a friendly and curious way — he wasn’t grilling me from a security perspective.
I felt he would have happily talked to me all day if I had not had a flight to catch, and he finally bade me farewell by saying, “Tell your friends to come to Pakistan!”
After immigration was a standard security check of hand luggage, followed by yet another check of my boarding pass and passport just several feet after the last one.
I was then through to the airside area of the fairly spacious terminal and hunted around for the PIA lounge, which the signs indicated was upstairs.
There are two lounges at the airport: one for PIA passengers and another for other airlines and Priority Pass passengers. They are next to each other upstairs.
The PIA lounge was one fairly small room that didn’t feel much like a lounge at all.
For starters, there was no check-in or customer-service desk at the entrance nor any staff in the room as I entered. I looked around confused for a minute or so, wondering if I was in the right place, and then a staff member eventually appeared me asking to see my boarding pass. I showed it to him, found a seat, and he asked me if I would like tea or coffee. I asked for coffee, which he brought to me soon after.
There was a very limited amount of food in the lounge: a few cakes and cookies with a couple of sandwiches.
While the lounge did have bathrooms, they were grim.
The lounge was deathly quiet the entire time I was there and didn’t have the sort of bustling activity you would expect at a busy international airport. It felt a lot more like a waiting room in a funeral home. While a lounge is always better than no lounge, it was very basic and not something I would recommend arriving early for. I was glad I didn’t follow the airline’s advice to arrive at least four hours before the flight departed, as it would have meant spending hours in this room.
I headed to the gate around 80 minutes before departure. My gate was in an enclosed area and required another check of my boarding pass and passport, a physical check of my hand luggage and yet another check of my boarding pass and passport just a few yards after the last one, before I could even enter the gate area.
Boarding was called around 40 minutes before departure. The boarding process was a complete and utter mess. There were no designated roped areas, so people crowded around the gate while numerous passengers in wheelchairs, forced through the crowd by ground crew members, were slammed into people standing in front of them. I heard numerous cries of pain from passengers as their calves and ankles were hit.
My boarding pass and passport were checked again. At this point, they actually scanned the boarding pass and ripped off a part of it. We then walked farther toward the jetbridge and were yelled at by a ground agent to stop and line up again in the middle of a hallway. Boarding passes and passports were then again checked at the top of the jebridge, and then checked again at the bottom before we stepped onto the plane.
I had really lost count of the number of times my boarding pass had been checked by this stage.
Cabin and Seat
Although I was one of the first people to board the plane from the gate area, I was surprised to see the business-class cabin half full. I couldn’t work out where these people came from — perhaps there was some separate VIP terminal or lounge that boarded these passengers before the gate area?
The front cabin on this 15-year-old Boeing 777-200ER was laid out in a 2-3-2 configuration, and, boy, did these seats looks old and tired. These were business-class seats other airlines had retired decades ago.
I quickly realized why PIA had renamed this Executive Economy on this flight: No one in their right mind would consider these seats acceptable for long-haul business class in 2019.
The grey, lumpy seat coverings looked sort of like clay sculptures from behind. From the front they looked slightly more modern.
I managed to score Seat 1A despite PIA not offering any online seat selection.
Waiting on the seat was a decent pillow, and there was at least excellent legroom in Row 1 and significantly more than other rows.
The seat was both literally falling apart and absolutely filthy after years of heavy use and inadequate maintenance and cleaning.
There were charging points at each seat, which I was shocked actually worked. There were also Ethernet ports, another relic of the past, but they would have been useless since the plane did not have a satellite connection.
There was no storage at all with these seats beyond the small literature pocket on the bulkhead in front of me.
The seat reclined a bit by when I pressed the mystery black lever on the armrest, except that the seat would only lower an inch or two each time I pressed it and then stop, even if I held it down, so I had to press it about 10 times separately.
My seat stopped well short of angle-flat. I tried out the seat next to me, and that managed to go slightly more flat, so I can only assume my levers were more busted than the seat next to me.
The seat was reasonably comfortable in recline mode for a quick nap, although I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to try an overnight sleep in it.
There was a tray table, but if the seat were reclined even slightly, it stayed on a strange angle. I had to have the seat fully upright in order to use the tray.
Amenities and IFE
Though each seat had a seatback screen in both economy and executive/business class, I could only bring up the grainy flight map. After a few hours, I asked a crew member if there were any movies or television shows available. She looked at me like I had asked if I could land the plane myself and simply shrugged and said, “Doesn’t work.” With no audio for the flight map and no radio channels working, I was quite confused as to why they bothered to hand out headphones…
No one else’s was working beyond the flight map, either.
The small, grainy screens did show the safety video, which contained both original iPods and Discmans. If you are under the age of 30 you probably don’t know what either of these even are, which should give you an idea of how old this video, plane and product were.
Unsurprisingly, there was no Wi-Fi.
Probably the only part of the entire PIA experience that actually impressed me was the amenity kit. Despite the unfashionable, beige design, it was actually pretty well-stocked.
There was an inflight magazine, which had an interesting interpretation of geography.
I always thought Toronto was close to the east coast of Canada and that Barcelona was also on the coast. There also seems to be some sort of exclusive codeshare route between Paris and Ibiza?
The toilets were in OK state for most of the flight: not particularly clean but not unusable, either.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
During the boarding process, water and orange juice was offered from a tray of prepoured drinks. I chose orange juice. I liked the branded glassware.
Having spent several days in Pakistan enjoying the local cuisine prior to this flight, I was looking forward to the meal on board. After takeoff, crew first came past and laid a tablecloth on my tray table without saying a word. No menus were offered.
Next came the starter, which was a Greek salad wrapped in cling wrap. It was OK, though the cube of feta cheese you see here was the sole piece in the salad.
A tray of bread was thrust silently in my face. After I asked what each type was, the crew did indicate one of the types was garlic bread, which I selected. If you’re wondering why the bread in the image above is orange and black rather than yellow and green like garlic bread normally is, that is because the garlic bread was both burnt and incredibly dry. I imagine they recycle uneaten pieces between flights, as it tasted as if it had been cooked about a month before (for about a month).
I did like the cute PIA salt and pepper shakers.
I knew that PIA was a dry airline, so I was not expecting any alcohol to be served. What I was expecting was some interesting drink options, perhaps juices or smoothies. Beyond water served with lunch, the lunch drinks offered were solely a tray of a few cans of Pepsi and 7Up. I selected a Pepsi and realizing it was room temperature asked if they had any ice.
The crew member nodded, disappeared to the galley and never returned.
The crew then rolled a tray down the aisle with various main courses.
One of the few times the female crew member actually spoke to me was to say, “You want European meal?” I replied that I would actually like to try a local dish, asked what they were and heard her mumble a few words. I managed to hear “biryani” amongst the descriptions and selected that. This is the rice dish I usually really enjoy in business class on carriers like Etihad.
She dumped the biryani on an angle on my tray without another word.
Some of the meat was fairly tasty, though most of the chicken was very dry, I’m guessing because of the time it had been in the ovens.
The crew came by to clear my main course and picked up my can of soft drink, which was empty — I drank it without the requested ice. They didn’t offer another.
After the main course was completed, a dessert cart was wheeled down the aisle. I had heard great things about desserts on PIA and was looking forward to trying something unique. I asked the crew member what the options were and, unable to understand the response, pointed at one that looked interesting.
The crushed almonds on top were OK, but the dessert was bland, unappetizing slop that I could only manage two spoonfuls of.
Around two hours before landing, a snack service was offered. A tray was again pushed down the aisle. The crew member looked at me blankly without speaking. I asked what the options were, and with a vague wave over the entire cart she announced “chicken or vegetable.” I asked for chicken and was served this:
The sandwich may have had chicken in it, although the meat between the dried-out, stale bread was so unidentifiable that it could have easily been vegetarian. The rolled pastry did have chicken it it but was dense, dry and overcooked. There were also two crumbed chicken tenders, which tasted OK.
Gone was the metal cutlery from the lunch service, replaced by plastic cutlery in a resealable, PIA-branded bag.
Tea and coffee were served. I asked for milk but was provided with powered “tea whitener.”
The crew barely spoke to me, and were downright rude.
As you may have guessed from the earlier sections of this review, the service was not good at all.
Throughout my various interactions with the crew during the eight-plus hour flight, they barely spoke to me. Most items were delivered in complete silence. I couldn’t work out if this was some sort of cultural barrier, as they were very talkative with the Pakistani passengers across the aisle. Most Pakistani people I had interacted with during my stay were friendly, warm and welcoming (such as the immigration officer at the airport in Lahore). This was the exact opposite of all the crew on board.
While a crew member was opening the cap of a large bottle of water to pour me a glass during the lunch service, the cap flew off the bottle, out of his hands and hit me in the neck, eventually landing down on the armrest next to me. I gasped, fairly startled. It was an accident, but rather than apologizing for what happened, the crew member simply leaned forward, grabbed the bottle top off the armrest and said, “Got it.”
Just before the second meal service I observed a crew member dumping all of the new tablecloths on the filthy cabin floor before refolding them on the floor.
We landed at Heathrow’s Terminal 3A few minutes early at 3:47 p.m. This was the view from out of the filthy window.
This is a very confusing product. While I appreciate that PIA have realized that if they are not going to improve or update their business-class product they cannot call it business class or charge accordingly, it was really disappointing even considering this as a premium economy product.
I was expecting an outdated seat and a vintage throwback, hopefully in a fun, quirky way. Had the crew been warm and hospitable and worked hard to make up for these shortcomings, I may have found the experience charming. Instead virtually every single aspect of the flight failed to impress.
I’ve done several premium economy flights on the likes of British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Norwegian, and this was easily the worst premium economy flight I’ve ever taken. If you are looking at this as a business-class product (and I believe they still sell this as business class on some long-haul routes), actively avoid it — even if it means paying significantly more and connecting along the way.
While the seat design and personal space was certainly better than most airlines offer in premium economy, the seats hardly worked and were absolutely filthy, certainly not something I’d want to lie down and sleep in. Norwegian have shown how you can take an older business-class seat, maintain it properly and offer it for a premium economy ticket and really impress your passengers.
PIA had no IFE or Wi-Fi on what is arguably their most flagship route, and this made for a long and pretty boring flight I was very keen to get off. The food was well below average, and the service ranged from nonexistent to rude. Though they are the only carrier flying direct between these cities, I would definitely choose a connecting flight on just about any other carrier than fly PIA again.
All photos by the author.
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