Mistakes were made

The aviation minister’s allegations of fake licences hold no ground after regulator’s claim to the contrary. Can this undo the damage done to the national airline?

As if the challenges faced by the national air carrier were not enough, the statement of Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan about the allegedly fake flying licences owned by some of its pilots has come as a severe blow to its reputation. He had said that 262 out of over nearly 850 pilots in Pakistan had fake qualifications and many of them had not taken the online tests themselves.

The formal announcement shattered the credibility of the airline in terms of safety, and invited bans from various countries and regions. Several airlines and authorities from various countries asked the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to verify the licences of the Pakistani pilots they had employed. Those seeking verifications included the aviation authorities and airlines of Ethiopia, Oman, the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom. To make things even worse, the minister had counted the pilots of the recently crashed airbus in Karachi among those with dubious credentials.

The situation at the moment is that a letter written by CAA to a civil aviation official in the Sultanate of Oman has in a way, refuted the claim of the aviation minister. The letter states that all the licences issued by the CAA to pilots are genuine and there is no ambiguity regarding this matter. Though this has come as good news for Pakistani pilots, there is little chance of the international community taking it on face value and lifting the bans on Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) right away. It will take a lot more than this letter to enable the airline to regain the confidence of the passengers and the destination countries.

One thing that was quite noticeable throughout this episode was that the issue was handled poorly and there were hardly any efforts for damage control. The image of the airline was tarnished as statements came one after the other without any strong defence by the organisations held responsible by the minister. The impact of such statements was not assessed beforehand and advice not sought from experts in the sector.

Afsar Malik, a former CAA official, says that in his opinion, there was no incoherence at the official level between various government departments: Aviation Division, CAA, and PIA. However, he says, these organisations chose not to counter an onslaught of speculations and allegations in the media against them. He says the PIA pilots’ representative body Pakistan Air Line Pilots’ Association (PALPA) tried only to create a smokescreen and some ‘pseudo professionals’ took the opportunity to settle personal scores with CAA and PIA managements. “Whether the regulator and the service provider should have confronted the accusations in the media or not is a matter of opinion. Had they done so, they would have been accused of influencing the inquiry proceedings.”

Malik says the PIA administration kept quiet because it realised that there was no convincing defence. There had been a series of accidents in the recent past and they were symptomatic of a poor safety environment resulting from a lack of discipline, adequate training, maintenance and a lack of professionalism at all levels of management, he says.

He says while the bans have been put in place now, things had started moving in this direction some time ago. The European Union procedure had begun about 10 months ago and the PIA and the CAA had been given enough time to fall in line with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) safety regulations like implementation of Safety Management System (SMS) and State Safety Programme (SSP). EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Authority) actually blamed Pakistan as a state to have collapsed as a regulator of its operators, which includes PIA.

There is a need to build strategic business units after separating commercial and noncommercial business of the airline. This, he says, will make every unit responsible for its profit and losses.

This reporter also talked to some prominent players in the country’s aviation industry who did not wish to be identified. The conversations revolved around certain issues and implications of what they called the irresponsible behaviour of the chief executive officer (CEO) of the PIA and the minister for civil aviation. Their input can be summed up as follows:

· PIA has been reduced to a domestic airline. It will no longer be able to comply with the international charter. A consequence of this is that Pakistan’s armed forces will not be able to move to perform their United Nations’ duties because defence personnel and equipment are always transported on board the national airline. Use of foreign airlines for the purpose can result in leaking of sensitive information and movement details.

· PIA’s cargo operation, a factor in foreign trade and movement of export goods, has also come to an end.

· PIA’s lease payments and insurance fees will increase exponentially on account of the severe damage to its reputation. The status of PIA’s foreign assets has also been clouded.

· PIA’s planes are old and being grounded. The airline has had no money for many years for spares and has been cannibalising its planes in the past. At one stage, it had 11 A-320 planes. It grounded one of them and made others operational by using parts from the grounded one. Then they grounded another plane. Meanwhile, it has been paying lease money on the grounded planes.

· The Musharraf government bought seven B-777 planes at an exorbitant price.

Shakil Aftab Kashmirwala, chairman of the KW Aviation Group and a former CEO of Eritrean Airlines, says PIA needs to be revamped and restructured. There is a need to build strategic business units after separating commercial and noncommercial business of the airline. This, he says, will make every unit responsible for its profit and losses. Moreover, he says, a working group should be formed within the PIA and the CAA where the associations and departmental heads take and own important decisions for these organizations.

Kashmirwala suggests that business plans, financial plans and marketing plans should be revised. Otherwise, he warns, the airline will be left behind. He says the CAA needs a revamp and must be headed by a technocrat with experience in management so that he can attract foreign investment in the aviation industry. “In order to target sixth freedom traffic, there is a need to develop transit facility. We need to make Pakistan a hub that is surrounded by big markets like China.”

Ticket prices from countries from where PIA cannot fly to Pakistan have increased two to three times. It is always viable for airlines to carry home-bound traffic. Other airlines then have to try and be competitive. Besides, nowadays the overheads of all airlines are high because the passenger demand is low and consists mainly of stranded passengers. There is hardly any demand in business and tourism sectors. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the demand is expected to recover fully in three to five years.

PIA spokesman Abdullah Hafeez Khan says that the airline is focusing on confidence building measures. He says it is in negotiations with the countries that have sought explanations on safety. “Besides”, he says, “they have forwarded recommendations to the regulators and the ministry for regulatory reform so that the system is not doubted and a credibility crisis does not arise.”

Haroon Abdullah, a former general secretary of the PALPA and Senior General Manager of Flight Coordination in PIA, says the issuance of a false list of fake licences in the National Assembly by the aviation minister has caused a huge damage and competent PIA pilots and engineers serving in world’s largest airlines have been fired as a result.

“Globally”, he says, “airlines spend billions on their promotions but in our country the incompetent people at helm of affairs have brought PIA and the airline industry to a standstill through their irresponsible actions and statements.

“When and how will they be made accountable is the question,” he adds.

The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at shahzada.irfan@gmail.com

Mistakes were made