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July 20, 2020

Pilots fake licence fiasco: what went wrong?

Top Story

July 20, 2020

ISLAMABAD: In the wake of a debate on pilots’ fake or genuine licences, one thing has been established that almost all recent aircraft accidents of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) are somehow linked to the names given in the government released list of fake or questionable licences.

The alleged fake licence-holders list, released by the Aviation Division, includes 101 active pilots from the PIA. A perusal of the list reveals that at least four pilots in the national flag-carrier had been involved in minor or major aircraft accidents in the recent past. These four pilots have been involved in three accidents, which included Havelian plane crash, PK-517 accident in Panjgur, and PK-605 accident in Gilgit.

The official documents, background briefings and discussions with the top officials in the CAA and the PIA have given a clear picture that what went wrong in the country’s aviation industry. The issue of alleged fraudulent licence of pilots is not the only reason; the international embargoes on PIA were inevitable, as the national airline had been facing multilayered problems. Missing the deadline to meet the safety standard of European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), PIA’s aircraft crash in Karachi, loopholes in the CAA technical examination system for pilots’ licence, internal rifts between the deputationists from PAF and PIA’s indigenous employees all have played their due role in bringing down country’s name and the national airline. The whole saga will cost the PIA around Rs90 billion’s revenue shortfall during the first six months of the financial year.

Pakistan was already on the radar because it has missed the deadline for meeting the criteria of Safety Management System (SMS). At a time when Pakistani authorities were in the middle of negotiations for getting some relaxations on the subject matter, the incident of PIA aircraft crash occurred in Karachi. This incident raised the level of concerns of EASA authorities. As if this was not enough for bringing down the national flag-carrier to ground zero, Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan added more fuel by issuing a statement of more than 260 fraudulent licences of pilots operating in Pakistan.

Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) Director General (DG) in his letter, written to Oman’s DG CAA, dated July 13, 2020, has clarified that all the Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) and Air Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) issued by the PCAA are genuine and validly issued. None of the pilot licences are fake, rather the matter has been misconstrued and incorrectly highlighted in the media/social media.

However, in the same letter’s paragraph No 3, the DG CAA further says, “When some concerns were raised about the validity of the licences of some pilots that the federal government immediately took notice and embarked upon the process of verifying the credentials of all licensed pilots through a forensic scrutiny. During this process, it occurred that there were discrepancies pertaining to the computer-based examination, which is one of the steps in the licensing process. Immediately upon the completion of the process, the pilots falling in this category were treated as ‘suspects’ till clearance. They were taken off the flying duties, if any and were grounded pending formal process after providing them an opportunity to explain their position.”

This confirms that there were some irregularities in the licensing system of the CAA. The PIA has also clarified and informed through an official correspondence to the EASA that all pilots, whose names were in the list of alleged fraudulent licence-holders, have been grounded. But the damage has already been done as the EASA did not buy the PIA response and inflicted restrictions on the national flag-carrier. Resultantly, the air freedom one and freedom three have been revoked for the PIA in European Union countries.

For the last many years, Pakistan Airline Pilots Association (PALPA) has been raising its concerns on the flawed technical examination system for the pilots. PALPA had intimated the civil aviation authorities that the technical examination system should be in sync with the FAA examination syllabus of the ATPL. Otherwise, this would lead to downgrading of the CAA as Pakistani pilots licences’ are not recognised by other countries due to reasons best known to the PCAA. Despite all these intimations in the past by PALPA, the civil aviation authorities paid no heed to their concerns.

Whether federal minister’s allegation of 262 pilots having fake licences is true? When did the investigations into the licences of pilots start? Whether any of the pilots allegedly having fake/ dubious licence is ever involved in any major or minor aircraft accident? What are the consequences of international embargoes on the PIA? What would be the financial impact of these restrictions on the PIA? These are the questions which need answers.

Aircraft accidents and fake/dubious licence-holder pilots

Muhammad Salehyar Janjua was the captain and Ahmed Mansoor Janjua was third/ trainee pilot, who were flying PK-661 that crashed in Havelian on Dec 7, 2016. There were 47 passenger including five crew members on board. Renowned singer-turned-religious scholar Junaid Jamshed was also in the same unfortunate flight that crashed while coming from Chitral to Islamabad. All the passengers including pilots died. Captain Salehyar and his trainee pilot Ahmed Mansoor’s names are among the list of alleged fake licence-holders.

The PIA flight PK-517 with 43 passengers on board was coming from Karachi when the aircraft skidded off the runway of Panjgur Airport on Nov 11, 2018. The pilot of the aircraft was Yahya Mussawar Sandhila, whose name is also among the alleged list of fake licences.

An inquiry into fake/fraudulent licences was also initiated after the Panjgur incident. The PIA identified 17 pilots in January 2019 and ordered for an inquiry. It took the CAA 15 months to finalise the probe and scrutiny of licences. During this period, the PIA paid Rs175 million to these pilots in the form of salary. The other perks and privileges are not included in this amount. Had the inquiry been finalised earlier, the airlines would have saved a huge amount which it paid as salary to these pilots.

Similarly, Miss Maryam Masood, whose name is among the list of pilots having fake/dubious licences, was involved in aircraft accident on Gilgit airport. The PIA flight PK-605 carrying 53 passengers skidded off the airport, while landing at the Gilgit airport.

Safety Management System and EU restriction on PIA

An official correspondence between the PIA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), a copy of which is available with The News, reveals that the European Aviation safety body raised a total number of six level-2 findings, pursuant to ART 230 (b) of Part-ART. For all findings, the PIA proposed corrective action plan, which were accepted by the EASA. Following the review of evidence of implementation of the agreed CAPs, five findings were closed. For the remaining finding which is related to safety management system, the PIA failed to fully implement the agreed CAP despite an extension of CAP implementation period. Therefore, the EASA escalated the level 2 findings to level 1.

According to the official documents, after the aviation minister’s revelation that more than 260 licences of pilots issued by Pakistani authorities are fraudulent, the EASA wrote a letter to the PIA on June 26, 2020. The PIA responded back to the EASA and provided its opinion and additional information on EASA’s intention to suspend the third country operator (TCO) authorisation. The material was assessed by the EASA as insufficient.

“EASA already granted M/s PIA an extension of the CAP implementation deadline from May 24 to June 17, 2020. Moreover, following the recent tragic events that M/s PIA has faced including flight PK-8303 on May 22, 2020 and the initial findings laid down in the preliminary accident report showing successive breaches of multiple levels of safety defences in the SMS, EASA is concerned that the safety management system is not achieving its primary objective,” says the official letter.

“Further, in response to EASA’s consultation letter, on June 28, M/s PIA claims that it has grounded all pilots that were part of the list of fraudulent licence-holders complied by the Pakistani authorities. However, this does not mitigate EASA’s concerns as there are strong indications that a high number of Pakistani pilots’ licences are invalid. The EASA, therefore, no longer has confidence that Pakistan as the state operator can effectively ensure that operators certified in Pakistan comply at all times with the applicable requirements for crew qualification, in particular with Article 29 of the Chicago Convention and with the standards laid down in chapter 1.2.1 of Annex 1 of the Chicago Convention,” says official letter of the EASA.

Well-placed sources said that the EU had revoked the first and third air freedom for the PIA which means the national flag-carrier could neither overfly from EU nor can it land or operate from any of the European Union countries. Both the restrictions are serious and damaging for the national flag-carrier. The sources said that the diplomatic channels played key role as Pakistan had managed to avoid restriction on the first freedom. Whereas, the national airline has been given a minor relaxation in the third freedom. The PIA can land in any European country by obtaining prior approval for any emergency flight during this period.

Financial impact of international restrictions on PIA

Well-placed sources informed The News that due to the current embargoes on the PIA, the national flag-carrier has to bear Rs80-90 billion revenue shortfall in the first six months of the current financial year.

Earlier, the airline faced challenges in meeting its revenue targets due to the COVID-19. But the loss inflicted upon the PIA due to fresh wave of restriction by the EU, the UK and the USA is unbearable.

Besides, the restrictions from the European countries, the national flag-carrier’s Hajj flights for this year had been halted as the Saudi government had announced a ban on the international pilgrims to perform Hajj for this year.

How many licences have been issued by CAA so far?

The official report submitted before the Supreme Court reveals that the CAA has issued a total of 1,934 licences, out of which 846 were ATPL and 1,088 were CPL. The licence issuing authority issued 450 licences to the PIA, 47 to Serene, 87 to Air Blue and 1,350 to others.

During the verification process of pilots’ degree/ certificates, the CAA initiated a process for scrutiny of pilots licensing record. During the said scrutiny, certain anomalies were identified in the computerised data of pilots’ technical examination. Consequently, for flight safety concerns, initially the CAA suspended 28 pilots and finally 54 pilots were suspended, informed the CAA in its official report, submitted before the Supreme Court.

The Board of Inquiry (BoI) identified 262 suspected pilots (including 54 pilots earlier suspended by the CAA) who had made an unauthorised access to the CAA computerised technical examination system. The procedural irregularities highlighted by the BoI relates to the following.

Those 262 pilots who were grounded by the CAA include 141 from the PIA, 10 from Serene Air, nine from Air Blue and 102 from other airlines. The CAA forwarded the summary for cancellation of licences of 28 out of 54 pilots to the federal cabinet, which according to sources have been approved. Out of 208 remaining pilots, 34 have been issued suspension orders with a right of appeal before forwarding the summary to the federal cabinet.

Criteria for issuance of licence to pilots

According to the CAA report, for issuance of commercial pilot licence (CPL), the candidate must have a PPL licence and 200 hours of flying experience. He should also have FA, FSc or equivalent education.

If a pilot has to fly a nine or more than nine-seat plane, then he needs an ATPL licence. For this purpose, his education criteria is FA, FSc or equivalent, he should be a holder of valid CPL or PPL licence plus 1,500 hours of flying experience. He should have to clear four-hour skill test and eight papers for theory knowledge test.

What were the irregularities in technical exam of pilots?

According to the report submitted by the CAA, there were five types of irregularities found during the scrutiny of pilots licences which included as follows:

Pilots have not attempted papers on a scheduled date;

Pilots have not attempted papers on a scheduled time;

The CAA examination server has been accessed from a different IP address; The CAA examination server has been accessed by creating different username and password;

Pilot’s flight logbook shows that on the scheduled date of papers, pilots were operating flights.

The way forward for CAA and PIA

An insider informed The News on condition of anonymity that EU’s aviation safety agency has demanded that the government of Pakistan should improve the regulatory framework; otherwise, the restrictions won’t be lifted. The reforms taken by the government of Pakistan should be visible and there should be a hack-proof system in place or else the ban won’t be lifted. They demanded Pakistan to ensure that Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority will not issue any fake licence in future. We, as a regulator (CAA), and the operator (PIA), have committed elementary mistakes which could have been avoided by ensuring implementation of the EASA demands, added the sources.

PALPA stance

Pakistan Airline Pilot Association (PALPA leader Captain Chaudhry Salman Riaz believes the examination system for the pilots’ licence is foolproof. Cheating or defrauding the system is out of question. The term ‘fake licence’ used by the federal minister for aviation has damaged not only the PIA but the country beyond one’s imagination. There could be some irregularities in few cases but the overall process of issuance of licences to pilots is as transparent as any other developed countries’ could be. He said PALPA was the last line of defence of the PIA and the baboos wanted to break this line of defence.

PIA response

When contacted, PIA Spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez said the federal cabinet has already approved suspension of 28 pilots, whereas the list of 34 pilots’ suspension is under consideration by the cabinet. The PIA had grounded the pilots whose names were in the list the very first day since it was made public.

About restrictions, the spokesperson said the government was working on the issue. After the announcement of restrictions on the PIA, diplomatic channels were used for relaxation of embargoes on the national flag-carrier. He said we have succeeded to get relaxation on the freedom one. The national airline’s management is working hard to fulfil EASA demands, he said.

Aviation Division’s version

Talking to The News, Senior Joint Secretary Aviation Division Abdul Sattar Khokhar said initially the CAA scrutinised the pilots’ licences, issued in 2017-18. However, the Board of Inquiry (BoI) later enhanced the scope of scrutiny for carrying out the forensic audit of these licences. The BoI shared its findings in June.

The media is highlighting Pakistan’s DG CAA letter to Oman’s DG CAA. Unfortunately they have highlighted the paragraph four which says the proper licences, issued by the PCAA are genuine but the media has ignored paragraph 3 of the same letter.

“We have presented a report before the SC where our IT experts have detected some anomalies. The aviation division never used the term ‘fake’ rather we said these licences are ‘suspicious’. Those who have been suspended were given full opportunity to defend themselves. Several countries have approached us for verification of licences issued by PCAA. As of today, we have validated 166 pilots’ licences.”