Grounded indefinitely?

April 25, 2021

A nightmare continues for PIA as lifting of the ban on EU operations is not in sight

The ban imposed on Pakistani airlines by the European Union is unlikely to be lifted before July. This will continue to cause heavy losses to PIA, which has already taken a Rs 24 billion hit because of shutting down of its operations to the European Union.

According to Abdullah Hafeez Khan, the PIA spokesperson, the national carrier has “already met the all demands and requirements of European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)”. He says that the EASA, in its letter to PIA Corporation Limited, said that the agency had reviewed the material provided by PIA regarding safety management system and found it to be satisfactory and sufficient as an important first step.

However, he says that the representatives of International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and EASA are likely to visit Pakistan to undertake Universal Safety Oversight Audit (USOA) to determine whether PCAA has met the mandatory safety requirements related to pilot licences and aircraft or not.

Regarding the loss to PIA because of European Union ban he refused to quote any amount but confirmed that it runs in the billions. However, sources in the PIA finance department confirmed that, through operations to the EU countries, prior to the imposition of ban, the national carrier was earning a revenue of Rs 2.3 billion per month.

“A total of 58 weekly flights used to fly to the EU countries – of which, 46 went to the United Kingdom and 12 to other European states,” he says.

About 35 percent of PIA’s total revenue of Rs 150 billion comes from EU, UK and US routes.

He said that prior to the recent travelling ban imposed by the United Kingdom, ban on Pakistani airlines provided opportunity to other airlines to expand their operations. The British airline, Virgin Atlantic, launched its direct flight operations for Islamabad and Lahore while British Airways has already expanded its operations from Islamabad to Lahore.

In this gloomy situation, however the high-ups of Civil Aviation Authority expressed the opinion that discussions with EASA are going in the right direction. Nadir Shafi Dar, the deputy director general of CAA, says that he has already held a number of virtual meetings with EASA officials and informed them of the measures taken by CCA and Pakistani airlines to address their concerns on safety of Pakistani aircraft.

“We offered EASA to conduct a virtual audit of safety requirements of our airlines and their fleet,” he says.

On the other hand, the members of Pakistan Airline Pilots Association (PALPA) do not see lifting of the ban before July this year and even fear that it can extend further. A senior PALPA member, on the condition of anonymity, said that there was no such thing as a virtual audit. He said the EASA team will conduct its audit in July, but there is a possibility that because of the recent wave of Covid-19 pandemic, it will delay the visit.

He says that the irresponsible statement of Ghulam Sarwar Khan, the federal minister of aviation, has done irreparable damage to the aviation industry and caused massive loss to national exchequer. He says that the minister, without taking CAA and national airlines on board, in a fit of excitement alleged that 260 (or 30 percent of) Pakistani pilots held fake licences. He says that later it was revealed that out these, 31 pilots had passed away or had left the profession for various reasons. He says the report, based on which the minister made these allegations was prepared by a team headed by Rizwan Ahmed, chairman of Pakistan National Shipping Corporation. Its other members were Shakeel Ahmed Mangneio (the CEO of Pakistan Reinsurance Company), Khurram Mirza (the Executive Director SP & Planning of PNSC), Naveed Shoaib (an IT expert from the private sector) and Air Commodre Nasir Raza Hamdani (Director of SQMS). Out of these five members, he added, only Nasir Raza had some experience of aviation industry.

He says that now out of 231 pilots more than 200 have already been cleared by the CAA or will get relief from courts. He says that the licences of only 28 pilots are likely be cancelled. These individuals had been on the CAA radar even before the adventurous move by the aviation minister. He says four pilots and office bearers are already facing suspension because they criticised the government’s irresponsible actions.

“One should ask the minister of aviation and other high-ups how they justify their actions after court judgments in favour of the pilots,” he says.

It may be mentioned here that when a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) aircraft crashed in Karachi’s Model Colony area in which 97 of the 99 passengers on board were killed, the investigation into the incident opened a pandora’s box. The licences of pilots were called into question with Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar promising to take action against those “holding fake degrees”.

The untoward situation and mishandling by the government forced the EASA in July 2020 to place a six-month ban on flights from Pakistan over safety concerns. The travel restrictions were extended in December 2020 for a period of three months, which ended in March 2021.

The EASA issued a letter in response to the CAA and PIA’s request to lift the ban and use only flight crew and engineers that do not hold Pakistani licences.

According to the letter, “In accordance with ART 235(b) of Part-ART, following an initial suspension period of six months, the agency decided to extend this suspension for an additional three-month period. This extended suspension period expired on March 31, 2021.”

It states, “At this moment, the agency therefore considers that not all conditions required to lift the suspension are met. Hence, according with ART 235(c) (1) of Part-ART, EASA should now revoke the Third Country Operator Authorisation (TCOA).

“However, in view of the ICAO audit of Pakistan planned in summer 2021, the ongoing technical consultations with the PCAA and due to the exceptional circumstances arising from the current Covid-19 crisis and the consequent travel restrictions, EASA opts not to revoke your TCOA but to further extend the suspension period until all necessary information is available to decide on the way forward.”

The author is a   freelance analyst

Grounded indefinitely?