As the number of globetrotters declined due to travel curbs and closed borders, alarms rang across airline carriers, but some remained hopeful of a full and quick recovery. Air Sial was inaugurated by the prime minister in December 2020. The News spoke to Fazal Jilani, the chairman of Air Sial, the Sialkot-based airline of Pakistan. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Q. Whose brainchild was this airline and how challenging it was to execute this idea? Briefly explain the journey.
A. It was during my tenure in 2014/15 as President, Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry that I first floated the idea of an airline.
Being a frequent traveller on international routes, I often had to travel on foreign carriers who offered numerous flights from several gateway points in Pakistan, including Sialkot where there were as many as 62 such flights per week. I always wondered if Sialkot could come up with its own airline, it would generate healthy competition by offering its own flights. Most importantly, it would result in substantial foreign exchange savings for pax seats / cargo space sold by Air Sial ex-Pakistan to a foreign destination. Conversely, it would result in substantial foreign exchange earnings for pax seats / cargo space sold by Air Sial abroad to a destination in Pakistan.
Additionally, it would generate series of economic activities in the national economy, thus contributing to employment and the national GDP. A dream it had sounded to many then, but here we are today – Air Sial being the most talked about start-up within and outside Pakistan
The first to share my dream was Muhammad Umer Mir, a leading exporter of sports goods and currently Vice Chairman in Air Sial’s Executive Board of Directors. He believed in Project Air Sial from day one and has stood by it ever since. I was later joined by eminent businessmen from Sialkot who together constitute the Executive Board of Directors -- Qaisar Iqbal Baryar, as Senior Vice Chairman and Ameen Ahsan as CEO.
Just about that time in 2016, we engaged Tariq Amin, ex-Deputy Managing Director, Shaheen Air, as our COO. Prior to engaging him, we had received presentations from several airline professionals in the industry.
However, Tariq Amin’s presentation carried credibility and was backed with a detailed workable action plan that answered all our questions and apprehensions.
After our incorporation as a public limited company in 2016, we applied to the CAA for the RPTL in November 2016 and obtained it in September 2017. Tariq Amin has ever since played a lead role in preparing the feasibility, in securing the RPTL from the CAA and then in setting up the whole airline as it exists today.
The journey to the commencement of our commercial operations has not been easy as we had to encounter far more turbulence than could have been anticipated.
To begin with, we had to sell the idea across the business community in Sialkot to enlist their investment in the project. Towards this end, we offered directorships to those investors who invested the qualifying subscription amount for a directorship. The response was encouraging as we reached the limit of the authorized capital, which had to be repeatedly raised to allow for more share monies being committed by investors for the project.
On the other hand, we had to encounter a shortage of supply in the narrow body jet aircraft in the global leasing market. At first, the production of the A320-neo aircraft was stalled due to snags in the new engines resulting in postponement of scheduled deliveries whereby the airlines that were to release their A320 ceo aircraft could not do so. Thus, our selected aircraft type A320 ceo remained practically unavailable to us. The supply crisis was further aggravated in the narrow body jet market when the B737 Max had to be grounded for a long spell.
Later, when we were able to source and contract the required number of a minimum of three aircraft in the market – from the top leading lessor in the industry—we had to face the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic which brought the entire airline industry to a virtual halt, spreading over several months.
This meant that our scheduled commencement in May 2020 had to be abruptly cancelled. It was a long, frustrating wait but we remained determined and steadfast and by the grace of Almighty, we finally commenced our commercial operations in December, 2020.
I need to also make a special mention here of our gratitude to Prime Minister Imran Khan not only for performing the formal inauguration of our airline at Sialkot airport in December, but also for piloting and promulgating the new National Aviation Policy 2019, without which any start up airline would have found it extremely difficult to enter the aviation sector in Pakistan.
It is a matter of pride for me to state that in Project Air Sial, the driver is not the profit motive; it is the spirit to be a source of honour for the Sialkot community; in fact, to steadily work towards re-establishing Pakistan’s credentials as a credible player in world aviation. It must be borne in mind that our vision is “To be the Pride of Pakistan and become the leading airline in the region”.
Q. Why was the need felt to have an airport and airline in Sialkot when a nearby city Lahore has these facilities?
A. Sialkot’s geographical location is unique for both its airport and its airline.
The success of Sialkot airport has already been covered at all forums over the years. Briefly, way back in 2000, the exporters from Sialkot had approached the government with the request for an airport at Sialkot but it was turned down as unfeasible. Later, General Pervez Musharraf’s government gave its go-ahead as a privately-run enterprise. Originally, it was conceived for cargo business so as to facilitate exports from Sialkot so that cargo was not required to be positioned at Lahore or Islamabad. However, it eventually turned into a full-fledged commercial airport catering both to passenger and cargo operations.
There have been several developments in the region that have brightened the prospects for aviation as a whole in Sialkot. The relatively remote location of the new Islamabad airport has led to a distinct edge to Sialkot city for the dense expatriate traffic from Mirpur, Azad Kashmir to / from UK and other European cities as the surface travel time is about 45 minutes less from / to Sialkot compared to the new Islamabad airport.
This competitive advantage will be improved by another 45 minutes with the construction of the Shahbazpur Bridge linking Sialkot with Gujrat over the Chenab River. Mirpur aside, there is also large expatriate passenger traffic belonging to Gujrat, Jhelum, Kharian and Bhimbher districts, who would thus prefer Sialkot as a travel point.
Q. How were the huge expenses managed and human resource selected?
A. While we have very strong financial fundamentals with our authorised and paid up capital several times higher than the regulatory minimum requirements, we have managed our financial resources prudently over the years with the result that we were financially well-positioned to launch our operations even in the background of the Covid crisis.
In the selection of our HR, we applied meritocracy without compromising, especially when it came to operations personnel. We hired only rated pilots with good number of flying hours to their credit. Our engineering department has experienced aircraft engineers in different trades--- line maintenance, aerospace, avionics, structure repair etc.
Q. What are the planned destinations of Air Sial? Domestic and international. Will Air Sial give boost to exports from Sialkot?
A. With Karachi as our base, we are currently operating three flights daily to Islamabad and two flights daily to Lahore. Within this month, we will be adding flights to Sialkot from Karachi twice a week while we will be similarly adding Peshawar to our network in March.
We are eyeing to go international sometime in 2021, subject to regulatory approvals, of course. Our international operations will, extend beyond the UAE and KSA to cover Europe, USA, Canada in the west and Guanghzhou, Hongkong and Kualalumpur in the East.
The international expansion will be phased over the years just as cross-border travel eases in the post-pandemic era. Yes, Air Sial will have a contributory role in the promotion of exports from Sialkot.
Q. What is the fleet strength of Air Sial? Will the fares be competitive and how does the airline aim to attain profitability? For example, aircraft to employee ratio.
A. Our fleet today comprises three A320-200 aircraft with an all-economy configuration of 180 seats.
We plan to add to our fleet to serve other cities on the domestic network – like Quetta, Multan, Skardu – for which the aircraft type being considered is a smaller jet aircraft.
Airline industry is competitive. Our fares will be competitive. But fares are only one part of the competition. Ours is a service industry, we intend to excel in different aspects of our services offered to the customers.
Profit maximisation is not a part of our vision or mission. If the industry itself survives, profits will also come for the individual airlines that survive.
Aircraft to employee ratio is a statistic which is relative and should be viewed in a particular context and not in isolation. At this stage of our operations, this ratio is not in the forefront of our consciousness.
Q. Any advice for other organisations and groups to take similar initiatives? Were organisations like CAA, Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) etc helpful?
A. Yes, CAA, SECP were supportive and understanding whose help and guidance played a significant role in the materialisation of our efforts.
My advice is “all our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them”. Yes, the Covid crisis has had its threats but all crises contain within themselves opportunities that good businessmen can exploit if they are assertive and courageous. And, above all, if they have faith.
The writer is a staff member