Grounded

July 5, 2020

Have the aviation minister’s words pushed the PIA into another crisis?

Following the May 22 Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) crash in Karachi, there is more trouble ahead for the national carrier as it has now been banned from operating in the European Union and the United Kingdom.

The ban follows startling revelations by the federal aviation minister about the pilots of the airline that is already facing a serious financial crisis.

On June 24, while presenting the preliminary inquiry report in the National Assembly, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, the federal aviation minister, blamed the pilots’ “overconfidence and lack of focus” for the Airbus A-320 crash that killed 97 people.

“The pilots were discussing corona throughout the flight. They were not focused. They talked about corona… their families were affected. When the control tower asked him to reduce the plane’s height, the pilot said ‘I’ll manage’. There was overconfidence.”

The minister also referred to a previous inquiry held to check the pilots’ credentials. “Almost 40 per cent of the pilots have fake licenses,” the minister claimed, adding that out of 860 pilots registered with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), 262 had manipulated their professional exam results by impersonating. “These 262 pilots impersonated in their exams: 121 impersonated in one paper; 39 in two papers; 21 in three papers; 15 in four papers; and 11 in five of their papers. Moreover, 34 pilots manipulated in all eight papers.”

According to official figures, there are 753 registered pilots working in Pakistani airlines and flying clubs,while 107 Pakistani pilots are serving in foreign airlines. Out of these, 450 are working with the national flag carrier – PIA. While out of these, 30 per cent of the pilots allegedly falsified their examinations to qualify for flying aircraft. As many as 141 of those are with PIA and 109 are working for other commercial airlines.

The minister did not stop there and repeated these claims in two press conferences held over the next few days.

“A total of 28 pilots with fake licences have already been identified. Departmental inquiries were completed against them a year ago. Nine out of these 28 pilots confessed to having fake degrees before the inquiry committee. The federal cabinet will revoke their licences in its upcoming meeting. Five licensing department officials involved in the scam have also been suspended (from service). In the past few years, 648 PIA employees have been fired because of fake degrees. The previous governments had made these political appointments. We will restore the lost glory of the national airline by giving it a new birth by ousting non-professionals,” the minister claimed.

In a subsequent media briefing, the minister softened his stance: “We cannot say these 262 pilots are fake. We just suspect them of being fake. The departmental inquiry will decide the issue.”

However, by then the damage had already been done.

International aviation safety agencies and authorities in several countries came into action and started seriously questioning capability of Pakistani registered pilots. Some termed the disclosures “the most extraordinary story in the history of aviation.”

On June 30, the European Union and United Kingdom barred Pakistani commercial planes from entering their airspace, temporarily and sought explanations from Pakistani authorities about the issue.

The European Union and the United Kingdom have barred Pakistani commercial planes from entering their airspace. The European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) has suspended PIA’s authorisation to fly for six months.

The European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) suspended PIA’s authorisation to fly to the bloc for six months, urging Pakistan to start diplomatic efforts for some relaxation.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority also withdrew PIA’s permit to operate from three of its airports: Birmingham, London and Manchester. Going one step ahead, the aviation authorities of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sought confirmation of the credentials of Pakistani flight operations officers and engineers working in the Gulf country.

In a statement, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said: “We are following reports from Pakistan regarding fake pilot licences, which are concerning and represent a serious lapse in the licensing and safety oversight by the aviation regulator. We are trying to obtain more information on the matter.” On July 2, the PIA was downgraded to a one-star airline by AirlineRatings.com.

Officials of the Pakistan High Commission in Ottawa, Canada, have also asked the Foreign Office in Islamabad to provide to them facts and figures about the episode. In Vietnam, the Civil Aviation Authority immediately suspended all Pakistani pilots working for its airlines.

On June 25, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice of the issue, calling the ‘fake pilots’ a hazard to passengers’ lives. The apex court sought a reply from the CAA director-general in two weeks.

PIA flight PK 8303 crash site.

Pakistan Airlines Pilots’ Association (PALPA), the union for PIA’s pilots, however, has a different point of view. Talking to The News on Sunday, PALPA president Salman Chaudhry questioned the government’s motive in publicizing such claims.

“First of all, we will not shield any black sheep. Instead, we will support the authorities in taking action against such pilots if there are any. The minister made the statement without any verification and without first initiating any departmental inquiry to support his allegations. The PALPA will contest these claims in the Supreme Court as well. This appears to be a move to sack pilots.”

Talking to TNS, a PIA pilot, who wished not to be named, said that the whole controversy had been created to employ air force pilots in the airline. “The current PIA administration is being run by serving officers of the air force. They are here on deputation. The current chief of the PIA is a serving air vice martial, while there are a number of other air force officers who are working on deputation,” he said.

On July 1, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairperson Bilawal Bhutto held the government responsible for the ban on PIA flights, saying the government apparently wanted to sell off the airline. “PIA’s permit to fly to EU countries has been suspended because Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan accused pilots of holding dubious licences without any evidence. The minister, who himself has a fake degree, accused our pilots without any evidence. Now they are being banned across the world. No one has caused this type of damage to PIA in history as this government has,” he said.

Speaking during the budget session, Prime Minister Imran Khan told lawmakers that the government would not brush the matter under the carpet even though it faced a lot of pressure.

However, the federal cabinet, in its July 1 meeting, deferred the matter of revoking the licences of 28 pilots. Also during the meeting, some federal ministers accused the aviation minister of mishandling the matter, saying his poor choice of words had landed the national airline in serious trouble.

So far, the Aviation Ministry has failed to upload the names of the 262 suspected pilots on its website despite the minister’s earlier claim. In his press conferences, the minister had promised to upload a list of all suspect pilots on the CAA website.

It seems that his ministry is under immense pressure now to save the credibility of not only the PIA, but also the CAA.

During the past decade, the PIA has gone through a serious financial crisis, caused allegedly by politically motivated hiring. The airline has had 10 chief executives in the past 12 years. Many of them were shown the door after they failed to satisfy employee unions. Successive governments have promised to overhaul the airline, but balked at the last moment.

In a recent meeting, Arshad Malik, the current chief executive officer, told Prime Minister Imran Khan that the national carrier faced a monthly loss of Rs 6 billion due to the travel restrictions imposed in the wake of corona-virus pandemic. “An amount of Rs 24 billion per year is being spent on payment of salaries to PIA’s 14,500 employees,” he said. The CEO also gave a timeline for PIA’s restructuring to the PM.

The current controversy is the most serious crisis to have hit the PIA. Analysts say that it might lose its credibility worldwide if the government continues mishandling the issue.

They say the minister’s claims were hasty and not backed by proof. They have ended up severely damaging the country’s aviation sector. The repercussions of this issue have only just started to manifest themselves.


The writer is a staff member and can be reached at [email protected]

Grounded: Have Ghlum Sarwar's words pushed the PIA into another crisis?