National carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is returning all four of its ATR 72-500s to lessor ACIA-Aero Leasing prematurely due to high leasing costs.

Local news reports, citing an airline spokesperson, say PIA negotiated to return the four turboprops early to “save the national carrier millions of dollars in rent.” The four turboprops are from a 2015 eight-year leasing deal originally for five ATR 72-500s announced with Abric Leasing, a lessor that is now part of ACIA-Aero Leasing, a Mauritius-based lessor with offices in Ireland and elsewhere.

The first of the four aircraft to be returned has already left the country via Johannesburg, South Africa, says the spokesperson.

PIA’s last financial report shows that it reduced pre-tax losses for the first three quarters of the year to PKR39.8 billion (US$250 million) from PKR41.4 billion (US$259 million) last year despite the impact of COVID-19. But the airline’s pre-COVID-19 debt was already skyrocketing, rising to about PKR450 billion (US$2.8 billion), the third quarter report shows.

After returning the ATR 72-500s, PIA will still retain three ATR 42-500s for its short haul network, says the spokesperson. PIA’s website also lists a jet fleet of 11 Airbus A320-200s and 12 Boeing 777-200/300s.

But PIA it is growing its fleet, issuing a request for proposals to dry-lease up to eight 170-plus-seat narrowbodies for 2021, with a requirement that the aircraft are manufactured 2012 or later.

If PIA were to successfully add the narrowbodies, it would further add to the recent influx of capacity into the Pakistan domestic and short-haul market despite the impact of COVID-19. New entrant AirSial recently received a third Airbus A320-200 leased from AerCap, which was necessary for it to obtain its air operator’s certificate and begin scheduled passenger operations. Pakistan has a requirement that scheduled passenger airlines have a minimum of three aircraft.

Pakistan has two other scheduled passenger airlines – Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A330-200 operator SereneAir, and Airbus A320-family operator Airblue. According to local reports, Airblue plans to receive Airbus A321neo aircraft in 2021, with at least two new A321neos already painted in Airblue’s livery.

Inclusive of AirSial’s three A320s, at least 13 narrowbodies could be added to the existing fleet of 25 narrowbodies currently being flown by Pakistan’s scheduled passenger airlines between now and the end of 2021 based on the fleet plans of the country’s airlines that have already been announced.

Photo: Ahmad Mahmood