Flight PK 8303 – PIA’s perennial problems


By Arif Nizami

Miseries do not come alone. As if the relentless attack of Covid-19 with all its dire human, social and economic consequences was not enough to sap the nation’s morale, the national airline’s Airbus A320 crashing into a residential area in Karachi, proved to be the proverbial last straw.

The plane was carrying mostly families flying from Lahore to Karachi to celebrate Eid holidays with their near and dear ones. Except for two passengers who miraculously escaped, 97 perished in the tragedy.

The mishap has raised a number of questions relating not only to the   crash but also about lax safety standards of PIA (Pakistan International Airlines). A probe team mostly comprising of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) officers and headed by a squadron leader has started its work.

Firstly, PALPA (Pakistan Airline Pilots’ Association) as well as the international body of pilots have objected to the composition of AAIB (Aircraft Accident Investigation Board) having no airline pilot or technical member as its member.

Secondly, critics contend that how can a board headed by a relatively junior officer, Air Commodore Usman Ghani, give a verdict that possibly questions the competence of his superior, Air marshal Arshad Malik who is serving as PIA’s CEO?

PIA plane

A far more serious objection can be raised about the Board’s locus standi. True, air force pilots and commercial pilots belong to the same discipline. But this is where the similarity ends.

Flying a commercial airliner is a different ball game from piloting and maintenance of an air force jet.

Modern commercial airliners like the Airbus A320 are sophisticated machines with fail-safe safety features. Not that a modern combat jet is any less, but it is still a different animal altogether. But if something goes wrong, it’s only the pilot who goes down with it.

Take the case of the type of plane that crashed. It is a fly by wire modern plane. Unlike automobiles its age (14 years in this case) does not mean it is an old plane, if it has gone through D-checks (the most comprehensive and demanding check for an airplane) and its parts replaced as per technical SOPs.

According to PIA, the plane’s maintenance record show that, “it was technically sound. “It had logged 47, 100 flight hours since entering service in 2004 and had been in operation with the airline since 2014.

The aircraft was powered by CFM56-5B-4 engines manufactured by CFM, a company jointly owned by GE (general electric USA) and a French manufacturer Safran France.

The Airbus A320 is one of the most popular airliners in the world. As of mid-February this year 15, 522 A320 and its derivatives have been sold all over the world. It is considered a workhorse, mostly used for short and medium-haul flights. It has one of the lowest fatality rates of any airliner.

In this context, the question that begs an answer is what went wrong with the doomed PK 8303? Obviously, one should wait for the probe results.

According to the Aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan the preliminary report will be made public on June 22. But one will have to wait longer for the Airbus manufacturer’s report that is expected in three months. Its probe team has already visited the crash site multiple times.

Rarely are such reports open and shut. Usually it is a chain of unfortunate events happening in split seconds that lead to such tragedies.

Instead of waiting for the report, all kinds of speculations are rife about the tragedy, some even at the highest level.

The aviation minister has wondered aloud about why the pilot of the doomed plane Capt. Sajjad Gul failed to engage its landing gear. He disclosed that on the request of the AAIB a psychologist and a doctor have been co-opted to interview friends and family of the pilot.

Whether these are deliberate leaks or factoids to shift the blame on the pilot thus absolving PIA of negligence, only the final report will tell. Nonetheless, the last few minutes of the ill-fated PK 8303, widely reported in the media, raise some important questions.

Flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet instead of 7,000 when the ATC (air traffic control) issued its first warning to the pilot to lower the plane’s altitude is one problem.

Despite being ‘hot and high’ (in technical parlance) the pilot responded that he was comfortable. When the plane was only 10 nautical miles away from the airport it was precariously at an altitude of 7,000 instead of 3,000 feet.

According to reports now confirmed by the aviation minister, the plane landed sans its landing gear open with both of its engines

scraping the runway thrice. Perhaps the pilot was not aware that the landing gear was not engaged or he simply ignored the warning beeps.

Neither did he ask for visual confirmation of the landing wheels not being down from the control tower as per the standard procedure. After the aborted landing, the A320 was a flying coffin. Both its engines’ vital parts severely damaged, it was unable to regain the required 3000 feet height, crashing into a building near the landing sight.

This is not the first time that a pilot’s physiological state has been brought into question by aviation circles. A Boeing 777 belonging to the Malaysian Airlines disappeared in March 2014 after departing from Kuala Lumpur.

Its wreckage was never found to this date buried somewhere deep in the ocean. It is widely believed that the captain, Zahare Ahmed Shah, was heavily depressed and deliberately sent flight MH370 into the Indian Ocean.

Whatever the outcome of the probe, the crash has raised questions about the safety standards of the national airline. PIA has a spotty safety record with 20 fatal crashes since its inception as Orient Airways at the time of independence.

PIA is a sad story-book of neglect corruption and cronyism. Infested with unions and associations sponsored and supported by political parties and successive governments in power, it is bereft of its past glory. With a fleet size of just 32, it has one of the highest ratios of employees per seat.

But owing to the vested interests supported by political parties it can neither be downsized nor privatized. Despite having a relatively small fleet its management is top heavy, drawing fat salaries and enjoying all kinds of perks and privileges.

No wonder PIA is perennially in the red, bankrolled by the state. Perhaps the only solution is to bite the bullet and privatize it.

Some have suggested shutting it down. This is also one solution, but easier said than done. Nevertheless, having a national airline is no longer a matter of national pride.

Swissair privatized is now Swiss airline. Lufthansa, the second largest airline in Europe was state owned till 1994. Now it is a publicly traded company. Lufthansa has controlling stakes in Swiss Airline as well as Austrian Airlines.

There are numerous such examples where airlines are either privatised or form strategic alliances with other airlines in order to run more efficiently and improve their profitability.

The government will have to evolve an out of box solution to privatise PIA. Merely handing out periodic doles from the national exchequer will not resolve this perennial problem.

(The writer is veteran journalist, Editor, Pakistan Today. He can be contacted at arifn51@hotmail.com. Article courtesy Pakistan Today)