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December 4, 2020

Who will inform the prime minister?

National

December 4, 2020

The European Air Safety Agency (EASA) wrote a letter to PIA on notice in July of this year, revoking permissions of the Pakistani national flag carrier to operate to and over EU member states, had termed efforts of PIA closing their observations, as satisfactory. The EASA ban was soon followed by UK Civil Aviation and US FAA totally crippling PIA which was already suffering in the aftermath of COVID crisis and then the tragic crash. The European Agency had also put Pakistan on notice showing concerns on the pilots licensing issues citing Minister of Aviation's speech on the floor of the parliament that one-third of Pakistani pilots have fake licenses. Even the Islamabad High Court chief justice wrote in his order “that the statement made by the Minister for Aviation on the floor of the National Assembly was not correct."

Sources I spoke to interpret the EASA that the audit observation made by EASA on PIA was not severe enough to instigate a total ban, however, the presentation by the minister on the licences issue ran chills across international aviation agencies which resulted in severe action. While the issue at the core of TCO withdraws was SMS system now EASA has tied it to the licences scandal and a conclusive outcome of that issue will start the next step of TCO authorisation for PIA flights to Europe.

It is important to understand that the ban imposed included all aircraft registered in Pakistan and was not limited to PIA alone. Next came in International Civil Aviation Organisation, demanding an instant audit planned for July 2020, of Pakistan Civil Aviation on licensing and regulatory affairs, a requirement which was declined by CAA on non-preparation and COVID concerns. The audit is now planned for June 2021, without which the concerns of not having Pakistan Aviation house in order is making international rounds. ICAO first recommended PCAA not to issue any further licenses which the ministry termed as a mere recommendation with no other implication. However the ICAO's final 90 days notice given to Pakistan, clubbing it with countries like Eritrea and Myanmar, suggests that situation is grimmer than it may be portrayed through official handles. This provoked the heads of Pakistani airlines to rush to the Prime Minister as an SOS, briefing the head of the government on the possible effects of a complete ban and suggesting complete overhaul of the regulatory and ministerial set up of the country.

Bent over with international level embarrassment, PIA geared up to resolve the open audit observation of implementing safety management system and sought help from companies like Boeing and Airbus to lobby and to acquire Safety Management System expertise from the former and Flight Data Monitoring from the latter. An in house SMS software was also developed and its implementation was exhibited to EASA through a written official compliance response submitted by PIA on 30 October 2020. EASA has accepted PIA's response terming it satisfactory. Although EASA wants to further explore its endurance against any type of cyber intervention.

However, celebrations are not in order yet, as in the same letter EASA has maintained that the licenses issues pertaining to the aviation regulator, read Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority, is still open and no significant development has been made in this regard terming their audit for Pakistan before they lift the ban as purposeless.

It is important to note that PCAA under the leadership of an ad hoc DG who also happened to be the boss of the whole industry as Secretary Aviation, has not made any progress on reforms of the licensing function. They only issued an inquiry report terming 5 people responsible for the breach of licensing integrity, whereas EASA has been consistently demanding exhibiting hack proof reforms that it is not repeated again. Nothing has been shown so far to demonstrate that licensing software or testing mechanism has been jacked up and made more secure. The irony is that a secretary of maritime affairs is the chairman and secretary of aviation as member of the Board of Inquiry constituted to look into the pilots crisis collectively have not been able to come up with a steady number of actual cases of fake or fraudulent licenses and their beneficiaries.

The variation is such that minister announced 262 pilots with 'fake' licenses, secretary aviation in his letter to a foreign regulator termed only 107 having 'dubious' licenses and last week in the Islamabad High Court, the same secretary said only 28 pilots had 'fraudulent' licenses while the cabinet has only revoked 17 licenses. Is there an utter incompetence or incoherence or lack of coordination between the aviation functions, the collective picture is creating a mockery for Pakistan aviation worldwide. The airlines are now blaming to kept in dark on all the developments, fearing their survival from an impending ban if the situation handling is kept the way it is. The government also seems indecisive on way forward and now judiciary seems to interjecting by demanding the vacant seat of the head of CAA since last two years to be appointed within three days to end the ad hocism and to create responsibility, triggering the government to appoint a bureaucrat with a past to immediately take up the reigns of CAA. Secretary Aviation has also been changed by the Government, finally showing signs that they are just grasping the seriousness of the situation.

Pakistan aviation seems to be in shambles and its handling seems to be all over the place. Collective efforts would needed to taken by all the stakeholders of Pakistan aviation otherwise we are in for a long haul.