With PIA scandal, govt has bitten off more than it can chew
Tahir Imran
If there is one Pakistani brand that most people around the world recognize, it’s the national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines.
From the Jumhuriyat Avenue of Istanbul to Amsterdam, you’ll find the PIA logo gracing offices-- an airline that once connected continents. But with the passage of time, it slid into an abyss. Marred by official level corruption and nepotism from all quarters, everyone had their fair share of loot and plunder at the airline.
But a recent debacle has thrown the already embattled airline to the lion’s den. PIA was already reeling from a crash that brought into question its pilots and their professionalism and then a new pandora box opened.
Last week, minister for aviation Ghulam Sarwar spoke in parliament and said 262 Pakistani pilots’ licenses were “fake.” Later he changed his statement to “dubious” and called the pilots ‘suspects.’
This is where things got complicated and messy.
If it was some random minister or government official who had made the accusations, it would not likely have amounted to a lot. But the man speaking was the country’s tsar for aviation, the man whose ministry oversees the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority-- supposedly an independent body.
Sarwar’s speech in parliament was damning enough to rattle the skeletons out of PIA’s closet. And soon the minister found out that he had bitten off more than he could chew.
Global headlines not only brought the credibility of the airline into question but that of the government and its regulator.
One after another, the mistakes not only called into question the whole purpose of the speech but also the process that was used to draw such a drastic conclusion.
It took the government three days to present a list-- one riddled with mistakes of epic proportions. In the list of 141 pilots given to PIA, names of deceased pilots were also included.
Two pilots on the list have foreign commercial pilot licenses as well as air transport pilot licenses that include licenses from the US Federal Aviation Agency. While PIA pilots are not given the opportunity to retake tests, two pilots of the now defunct Shaheen Air International were allowed to retake their exams and received their licenses eventually.
Aviation is a risky business where airlines, lessors and especially passengers are very cautious. A slight rumor, especially after a crash, can scare passengers and the whole industry.
Passengers on more than two PIA flights have already refused to fly after hearing generic sounds that are a normal part of an aircraft functioning.
And here we had a federal minister speaking on the floor of the House, so obviously things could have gone in any direction. Whoever thought they could contain this mess once they unleashed it were mistaken because the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) process with PIA was ongoing, and it was only the statement from the minister that prompted the agency to take the drastic step to immediately stop the airline flying into Europe.
Nobody, it seems, thought about the language or the place to reveal such a major scandal. It appears nobody thought about the repercussions such a statement could have on the country’s reputation and its aviation industry. But perhaps that is too much to ask of a minister whose own ministry is in disarray, and where power struggles already sent one DG CAA home-- a man they could not find a replacement for in two years.
The current battle is not for PIA alone; it is now an uphill struggle for PIA, Pakistan Civil Aviation and the state that operates both to find some credibility through a process that can reestablish it.
It will require more than typical knee-jerk actions to bring back what is lost. Until international stakeholders like ICAO, ITATA, FAA, IFALPA and EASA are not involved in this process to ensure transparency, any process will be questionable. EASA’s letter may be the first but it will not be the last and one after another, doors will start closing.
Now various governments are asking about pilots, soon lessors will ask about their planes, insurers will ask about their services and things will continue to deteriorate further. With the country’s economy on a downhill path, growth forecast at a historic low, the dollar rising against the rupee and COVID-19, the last thing Pakistan needed was this scandal.
There may be no Hajj and Umrah for the foreseeable future, which is the most profitable business for Pakistani airlines. And with this debacle, costs will rise and yield will dwindle or even dry up.
Everyone who understands the Pakistani aviation sector was flabbergasted when the minister delivered his infamous speech. But the damage is done and as a joke shared by former minister Ahsan Iqbal goes: “They started with the investigation of a crash… and ended up grounding the whole airline.”