By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Indeed. When sorrows come visiting us, they don’t come in singles but in battalions. That’s the way phrase goes and perhaps one finds it quite appropriate to describe the predicaments that Pakistan has always been facing. A leadership muddled by indecisiveness, has not been able to come up with a well thought out policy to grapple the Co-vid-19 pandemic.
Its mishandling of the Co-vid-19 is sinking it deeper and deeper every day in the quagmire faced by the country ever. Most alarmingly the number of people afflicted by Co-vid-19 is nearly 60,000 with no exact number of deaths but it is surely multiplying each passing day. Prime Minister’s Health Adviser Dr Zafar Mirza does make good TV appearances but nothing is reassuring from him except scandals. He is reported to have said that if the affliction keeps mounting the way it is apprehended that in a few months’ time it could cross 200,000. God forbid. Let us hope and pray for divine intervention to save us from the curse.
As if this enormous tragedy that has opened floodgates of socio-economic miseries was not enough that we had the crash of the national airline’s Airbus A320 in a residential area in Karachi near the airport, killing all on board except two passengers. This horrendous tragedy has shocked the nation into not only asking many questions pertaining to the incident but also about the whole running of the national carrier that has had a glorious past to its present dismal state of affairs. One remembers PIA described by the First Lady of the United States-Mrs Jackie Kennedy-that PIA is a great airline to fly. However, till the time of its last crash, its track record in safety has come to be deplorable notwithstanding the fact it has one of the largest numbers of employees running one of the smallest fleets among airlines. One used to proudly remember the good old days when PIA mothered most of the Middle Eastern Airlines taking them to heights of perfection in aviation.
A routine investigation has been ordered by a probe team by PIA CEO Air Marshal Arshad mostly comprising of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) officers and headed by a squadron leader. Not that those PAF officers are not competent to conduct an inquiry in a crash of commercial airliner, there is no doubt that standards vary regarding safety, service and efficiency of a fighter plane and commercial plane. What needs to be noted is that aspersions have already been cast by various quarters about the lack of proper maintenance of the aircraft, it needing some spares and repairs before getting a green signal for flight. 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. Besides, one fails to understand as how would junior PAF officers find fault in the organisation run by a serving air marshal. They would always be conscious of the fact of the known close relationship of the PIA chief with the powers that be.
Independent observers and aviation experts believe that how can a board headed by a relatively junior officer give a verdict that possibly questions the competence of his superior including PIA chief Air marshal Arshad Malik? No doubt serious objections are being raised about the Investigation Board’s locus standi. True, air force pilots and commercial pilots belong to the same discipline. But that is where the similarity ends. A commercial pilot has to be responsible for the lives of more than 100 passengers while that’s not the case flying a fighter. Flying a commercial airliner is a different ball game from piloting and maintenance of an air force jet. Aircrafts such as Airbus A320 are sophisticated machines with fail-safe safety features. Combat jets too belong to the state of art machinery. However, it is still a different ball game. If something goes wrong, it’s only the pilot who goes down with it.
In case of crash of Airbus8303 experts say that it a most modern flying machine and if properly maintained with SOPs of replacing worn out parts regularly, only human error could bring it down. This is supportive of the statement of PIA chief that PIA’s maintenance record shows that the C8303 had no technical fault and had been updated. It had only done 14 years of flying which in aviation parlance was young age for a sophisticated plane. PIA maintenance record of the plane sows, “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. Being one of the most popular aircrafts in service, it is considered a workhorse, mostly used for short and medium-haul flights. Except Pakistan, it has one of the lowest fatality rates of any airliner.
Team of investigators from Airbus is here, collecting and probing whatever could help it find to trace the cause of airplane’s fatal crash. One shall have to wait for the probe findings. According to the Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan the preliminary report will be made public on June 22. But one will have to wait a little longer for the Airbus manufacturer’s report following the decoding of black box and other cockpit recordings that is most likely to take three to six months.
While waiting for the final findings of the inquiry both by Airbus team and PAF Commission, one should not become privy to all kinds of speculations that are rife about the tragedy. Even Federal Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan should refrain from blame game. His question about why the pilot of the doomed plane Capt. Sajjad Gul failed to engage its landing gear sounds valid-if not designed part of leaks to shift the blame on the pilot thus absolving PIA of negligence.
Indeed, while airbus investigators would do their bit to get to the bottom off the crash, higher ups in the Ministry of Defence, should consider making PIA CEO accountable as well as looking not only into the maintenance of its fleet but also flying conditions of its pilots and crew members often found not in a fit state for flying. In this case too pilot’s psychological state of mind has been brought into question by experts. Whatever the end result of all the investigations, the Airbus 8303 crash has raised the pertinent questions about the deterioration in safety and otherwise standards of the national airline.
(Author is the former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist.)