This lack of connectivity has been a cause of concern for the Sialkot business in the past, particularly for the approximately 400 family businesses that form the core of the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI).
For a long time, the SCCI tried to take its demands from decision-makers in Islamabad seriously, but to no avail. In the late 1990s, SCCI membership began to unite with the idea: “If the government doesn’t provide us with our own airport, we’ll build one for ourselves.” In 2001, the SCCI contacted the Musharraf administration to obtain permission to begin building their own airport.
Perhaps it is fitting that the SCCI was able to obtain permits under a military government: the CAA, which regulates aviation in Pakistan, is a department of the Department of Defense, and Sialkot’s location near the Indian Kashmir border could have been created to complicate the construction of the Airport for a long time.
However, after approval by the Musharraf administration, the SCCI began to raise capital relatively quickly. The richest 365 members of the SCCI began to raise equity for the newly founded Sialkot International Airport Ltd, the company that was to operate the airport. The minimum contribution was just over 1 million rupees, although the 13 richest families each invested well over 10 million rupees. The total amount of funds raised was just under Rs 2.1 billion.
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The airport itself was built on more than 1,000 hectares on a property outside of Sialkot and is strategically accessible for both Gujrat and Gujranwala in order to supply the largest possible population. While the government didn’t help paying for the airport itself, the Punjab government built a small road that connected the airport to the Sialkot-Wazirabad highway.
Construction began in January 2003 and the first test flight was carried out in March 2005. Air Blue was the first airline to start regular flights to Karachi in the 3rd quarter of 2007. PIA started less than two weeks later. Until June 30, 2009 – the second full year of operation – Sialkot carried more international passenger traffic than domestic ones.
In the early years, international flights were carried out exclusively with domestic airlines, mainly with Air Blue and PIA. Shaheen Air started operations in July 2009. Later government allowed the airport to serve foreign airlines, thus in 2013 AirArabia, FlyDubai and Emirates stated operations.
Emirates flights to Dubai only started four times a week, but by September 2015, just two years after launch, they had become daily flights. In the meantime, PIA had been experimenting with adding direct flights from Sialkot to Europe.