PIA: Transparency gone wrong


By Arif Nizami

The other day I was watching CNN. In its brand reports segment, it briefly introduced Emirates. The Dubai based airline is now the fourth largest airline in the world. It operates from terminal 3 of Dubai airport with 3600 flights to 60 to 160 countries in a week.

These are facts known by most Pakistanis who have flown Emirates.  But little known is the fact that the Airline set shop in March 1985 with Pakistan international Airline (PIA) providing two of its aircrafts on wet lease. PIA also provided training to the cabin crew of the incipient airline at its academy.

This made me wonder after all what is wrong with the national carrier that once was pride of Pakistan. Under the present government, thanks to its myopic policies, PIA has literally run aground.

In the good old days, morale at the airline was sky-high. Nobody doubted its slogan: ‘great people to fly with’.

This was abandoned when a PIA plane crashed and critics morbidly started twisting the slogan to: great people to die with. However, the national carrier bounced back with the slogan: nothing succeeds like success.

To be fair, the rot had started much earlier. PIA over the decades has become a sinecure for cushy highly paid jobs for top bureaucrats and cronies.

Every successive government packed it with fresh induction of ‘safarshis’ (favourites) rather hiring on merit. Resultantly, the Airline now has one of the highest numbers of employees per seat in the industry. To further compound matters, PIA’s employees’ unions and pilots and engineers’ associations became proxies of successive PML-N and PPP governments.

PIA plane

No downsizing to make the airline lean and efficient was possible in this context. The courts also led a helping hand to the unions through perennial stay orders against successive managements.

Perhaps the biggest malaise afflicting PIA is that it is being run by the state. Emirates in sharp contrast despite being state owned is run independent of government subsidy.

For years PIA was controlled by the ministry of defence with all its appended complications. The PIA Board is packed with favourites with a sprinkling of a few bankers and businessmen.

Nonetheless, till only a few months back, the present dismal plight of the national carrier was unimaginable. With a retired air marshal its CEO the airline has hit an all-time low. The fatal blow to the already struggling airline was dealt by the aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan.

The minister, playing to the gallery, sensationalized the PIA Airbus 320 crash over Karachi that happened just before Eid last May. The minister with exemplary alacrity formed an inquiry committee comprised of mostly retired Pakistan Air Force officers. As promised the report was released on the floor of the National Assembly, blaming the pilot and co-pilot of the ill-fated plane for the accident.

As per the ethos of the present government, Sarwar Khan also released all the previous crash reports. Perhaps the real reason was to tannish the previous governments for lack of transparency.

It sounded very nice that here is a government that believes in sharing facts with the people in real time. But the minister took it a bit too far for comfort by stating on the assembly floor that close to 40% of all CAA-issued pilot licenses were “fake”.

Perhaps no thought was given to the collateral damage this singular act of the worthy minister will engender. Even, the prime minister patted his minister on the back for exposing another ‘mafia’.

The CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) has come to the rescue of the aviation minister by claiming that all pilot licences are ‘validly issued and genuine’.  According to the CAA director general, the matter had been misconstrued and incorrectly highlighted in the media.

The all too common tendency to blame it on the hapless media when there is no other explanation has been deployed by the DG to save the skin of his nominal boss. Perhaps a cursory glance at Sarwar Khan’s speeches on the floor of the National Assembly on the matter will enable everybody to sift fact from fiction.

In the meanwhile, to name a few, the USA, Europe, Britain and Malaysia have banned PIA for six months on the basis of its safety record.

Even before Covid-19 set in, the national carrier was deeply in the red. The pandemic has dealt a lethal blow to airline industry worldwide. But Pakistan is a classic case where the government by design or sheer foolishness has driven the national carrier into an even deeper hole.

While successful airlines even in countries like Ethiopia and Vietnam run their national airlines by professional managements, PIA (especially of late) has become a haven for retired or serving air force officers. The incumbent Arshad Malik was inducted as CEO when he   was a serving air marshal.

He was holding dual positions, enjoying perks and privileges from both state organizations. Now, post the PK-8303 crash and the pilots’ license fiasco, he has been given a new lucrative contract immediately after his retirement.

For what services rendered, no one knows. In any civilized country he would have been sent packing.

Previously two former air chiefs, namely Air marshal Asghar Khan and Air marshal Nur Khan are credited with laying the solid foundations of the national air carrier. These were exceptional gentlemen, pioneers in their field and with tremendous

organizational abilities.

But in the present matrix, running an airline has become a highly competitive and technical business.  Professionalism and business acumen are a sine qua non for running a successful airline. In this context PIA’s top management is still living in the dark ages.

Was any head-hunting done to hire a professional CEO? None whatsoever! Unfortunately, retired officers are automatically considered qualified for any high profile and cushy job.

The CAA is also headed by a retired Pakistan Air Force officer. It dismally failed in its regulatory functions. Yet no heads rolled.

Who is responsible for loss of scores of lives in the recent air tragedy?  It is a systemic failure. The manner in which a technically sound plane crashed speaks volumes about the spirit de corps of the airline.

Billions of rupees have been lost apart from loss of reputation and massive inconvenience for the citizenry. Pakistanis more or less have been cut off from the rest of the world. There is no light at the end of the tunnel as restoring confidence in PIA’s lax safety standards will be near impossible given how the same set of people are running it who are responsible for this mess in the first place.

Yet the minister for aviation is firmly in his saddle. The opposition is right in demanding his resignation.