PIA, the jet-age and working women

The Pakistan Times, 11 September 1966

The coming of the jet-age: women, advertising and tourism in Pakistan

Appearing on 23 September, 1956, The Pakistan Times article, ‘About women travellers’ is a commentary by their woman correspondent on travelling in the jet-age and ends optimistically with, ‘Times are changing rapidly. Gone are the days when women could not move unchaperoned, for now they travel the globe, and although there are no undiscovered continents, they still travel paths yet untrodden by women.’ This article appeared at a time when Orient Airways was merging with Pakistan International Airlines Corporation to form what is now more popularly known as PIA.

Shortly after PIA’s establishment, in 1959 the new managing director, Air Commodore Nur Khan, took over; he was considered to be a dynamic and forward-thinking visionary and well placed to take advantage of the coming jet-age that would revolutionise air travel. By its own admission, PIA considered his tenure as the ‘golden years of PIA’. Enver Jamall, former chairman and chief executive of PIA, highlights the competition PIA had with Air-India, which had already placed orders for Boeing 707s to be delivered in 1960. There was much determination within PIA to be the first airline in the East to operate jets and so an agreement was reached with Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) for the lease of one of its Boeing 707s. This would operate on the London-Karachi-Dacca route with an extension to New York once a week. The flights began in March 1960, giving PIA the coveted prize and the route was a financial and operational success.[1]

Writing on the tenth anniversary since independence the General Manager of PIA, Zafarul Ashan, notes how the bold concept of air transport helped Pakistan maintain national unity. He goes further and adds that ‘In air transportation, more than in anything else, the Pakistanis discovered their true genius, striving as a modern nation to achieve a happy blend of the values of their rich cultural past with values and concepts of this age.’ Ultimately, PIA’s impact extended beyond merely connecting the two wings. Apart from the trade between the two wings, the ‘low cost air transport within Pakistan started a revolution in the travel habits’ of people and ‘it opened up new venues of business and recreation.’[2] With the jet age, there was simultaneously an emerging middle class with more disposable income both globally and within in Pakistan. So while the majority of the early travellers were wealthy businessmen, the affluent middle class was the way ahead for expansion. Nur Khan recognised this opportunity for growth and expansion.

PIA also made some interesting strategic moves. In 1955, the first flight ‘to the glittering, glitzy capital city of London, via Cairo and Rome’ started. There was some criticism of this from the public who regarded other projects as more urgent for a developing country like Pakistan but this was rebuked with the substantial foreign exchange earned through the international service. Indeed the foreign tourist market was crucial to the business model in the early days of PIA, it is only by the 1970s that the shift towards catering for the diaspora market takes place. Travelling abroad was an aspirational luxury for an elite group of Pakistanis but PIA in its early years was also tapping into the lucrative international tourist market. This is certainly evident in the early marketing and advertising by PIA, they were appealing to the foreign market and indeed the airline was successfully establishing a reputation for excellent services and was increasingly capturing the international market.[3] It was consistently considered as one of the best airlines in the East and was increasingly competing with likes of Pan Am and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) for foreign tourists coming to Pakistan.

What is often over-looked in this story is the role of the women in promoting the PIA brand. PIA often used traditional notions of womanhood in their ads to attract more girls into the profession. We can see this from the text below taken from a 1966 tagline:

‘Pakistani girls make good daughter – no wonder they make such good Hostesses’

The advert depicts a young, elegant lady playing with a child on board a flight and continues, ‘Affection for the young, respect for elders and the desire to be helpful, hospitable and gracious…make-up of every daughter of Pakistan.’ These attributes can easily be applied to any “good” daughter (and potential daughter-in-law). But instead of representing the home, PIA airhostesses were ‘Pakistan’s Ambassador in many countries abroad’ and often she would be the first point of contact that a foreign visitor would make with Pakistan.[4] While playing on some of the traditional roles of women, the advert is also breaking new ground by legitimising the role of the airhostess. It sends out a message that this is a “respectable” profession and thereby quelling any fears parents may have about their daughters wanting to join the profession. On the other hand, the use of glamorous young females in exotic locations, also promotes an image of Pakistan which modern, progressive, internationalist and welcoming. There is then a dual role in the marketing and branding of the advertising.

There is also a sense that this was an age of new discovery and opportunity, democratisation in the travel and adventure industry, no longer the preserve of wealthy elites. An ever-increasing number of people now had the opportunity to explore and venture into new areas and the newly created nation of Pakistan had many attractions. The Government of Pakistan was also keenly promoting tourism, as is evident in the promotional literature of the 1960s. Foreign travelogues and magazines like the National Geographic were similarly featuring Pakistan as a tourist destination. While Karachi was the hub of activity, it was the old Silk Route, Peshawar, Swat, Chitral, Gilgit and the Karakorum Highway that attracted the adventure tourists. Mack Millar was a flight instructor assisting PIA during its early days and notes. ‘Although PIA is a national airline and the Pakistani government was founded to give the Muslim people their won country, the airline, like the nation itself, shows a wonderful tolerance for people of other persuasion. Many of the pilots are of mixed lineage-Anglo-Indian and Portuguese-Goanese, for example-and many are Christians.’[5] The feeling is that this was a more tolerant age; it was more open to foreigners and ideas. Internally it presented opportunities for Pakistanis to be part of an international community. The social and political changes that have taken place in Pakistan in the past 40 years have polarised this landscape.

The advances made in air travel were crucial to the existence of having a nation state divided by 1100 miles of hostile land mass. Zafarul Ashan was only too aware of this, ‘Nothing could have been worse than isolation for the cultural development and the expansion of the economy of the two wings. Political equality demanded that East and West Pakistan should be brought very close to each other in terms of time.’[6] The timing for Pakistan’s existence as a nation-state is therefore crucial in that the airline industry was just beginning to take off during the 1940s and not long after, the jet-age would revolutionise air travel. But along with this, a number of other opportunities also opened up. Foreign travel increasingly filtered down to the classes and was no longer just an elite activity. Out of this emerged a tourist industry attracting people to visit Pakistan and a domestic market, based not just on travel between the wings of Pakistan but looking to travel and experience the world beyond Asia. It also fundamentally opened opportunities for women to work and explore the globe. In an age where women were restricted to largely working in “respectable” jobs like teaching or medicine, here PIA was making the idea of working in the airline industry and as an airline hostesses a respectable profession. This was ground-breaking for the age.

[1] ‘Birth of a Nation; Birth of an Airline: The History of PIA,’ Enver Jamall in The Putnam Aeronautical Review 1990.

[2] The Pakistan Times, ‘P.I.A. Plans for Increased Capacity’ by Zafarul Ashan, 14 Aug 1957.

[3] The Pakistan Times, Independence Supplement, ‘PIA is flying high’ 14 Aug 1960.

[4] The Pakistan Times, 11 Sep 1966.

[5] Ed Mack Miller, ‘Pakistan International Airlines Great People to Fly With’ Flying, March 1963

[6] The Pakistan Times, ‘P.I.A. Plans for Increased Capacity’ by Zafarul Ashan, 14 Aug 1957.

A version of this appeared in The News on Sunday [link: http://tns.thenews.com.pk/the-coming-of-the-jet-age/#.WI_D3JJOuHk%5D

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