Delayed decision-making gatal for governance


In the aftermath of the crash of Pakistan International Airline’s ill-fated Flight 8303 at Karachi on May 22, investigations revealed that the national carrier had been harbouring a large number of pilots with dubious flying licenses. Pakistan’s Minister for Aviation made the disclosure in his address to the Parliament, declaring that Pakistan’s national carrier is firing 28 pilots found to have tainted licenses.
An inquiry into the May 22 crash that killed 97 people on board resulted in the stunning revelation that 260 of 860 pilots in Pakistan had cheated on their pilots exams but were still given licenses by the Civil Aviation Authority. The government later fired five officials of the regulatory agency and criminal charges against them are being considered. According to news reports, 262 pilots are currently grounded in Pakistan.
The scandal shocked the nation, including the families of those passengers who died when the flight PK8303 went down in a congested residential area while trying to land at Karachi international airport. There were only two survivors on board. Pakistan’s political opposition and even some members of the government and its allies chastised the Minister for Aviation for publicly announcing the saga of the dubious licenses.
The revelations of tainted pilot licenses not only embarrassed the government, shook the top ranks of Pakistan International Airlines but caused numerous other airlines hiring Pakistani pilots to either ground them or seek clarifications from the government. The European Union’s aviation safety agency and the United Kingdom subsequently banned PIA from flying into Europe for at least six months following revelations that nearly a third of Pakistani pilots had cheated on their exams. Pakistani pilots flying with European airlines have also been grounded while their credentials are being verified. While expressing concern over the recent safety issue with the PIA, the Omani Civil Aviation Authority has warned Pakistan that the national flag carrier could be barred from using its airspace. Omani authorities have also asked Islamabad to explain what curative measures had been taken to ensure safety of flights. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also downgraded Pakistan’s air safety rating after the agency raised concerns about pilot certifications.
Interestingly, PIA has revealed that 17 of the 28 sacked pilots were already grounded in January last year, after an aircraft skidded off the runway in northern Pakistan. An internal inquiry into that accident, which did not result in any injuries, questioned the licenses being issued by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. Ironically, according to PIA sources, the 17 pilots have since been paid $1.7 million in salaries after a court ruled that PIA could not dismiss them until an investigation into their qualifications had been completed.
Pakistan International Airlines, which was once a top air carrier of the world, renowned for its efficiency and service, has sunk to lows of corruption and sleaze. Opposition politicians have sharply criticized Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government for going public with the report’s findings of widespread cheating on exams taken by pilots. The government replied saying Khan was cleaning up the corruption left behind by past governments in Pakistan.
The national airline, once considered among the finest, has deteriorated over the decades as successive governments doled out patronage by giving jobs at PIA to supporters. Overstaffing, air and ground crew holding bogus qualifications, ghost employees that saddled the profitability and viability of PIA, poor maintenance systems and corruptions at various levels have ruined this fine airline. Currently, As a result — at roughly 450 employees to each of its 31 aircraft — PIA has one of the world’s highest employee to aircraft ratio in the industry. Most airlines have less than 200 employees per aircraft. The ratio is considered a key benchmark in calculating an airline’s productivity.
The government has taken a step in the right direction by trying to clean the Aegean’s Stables and ridding the country of corruption. The US, EU, most Middle Eastern States and the Far Eastern kingdoms of Brunei and Malaysia may either bar Pakistani pilots temporarily but it is essential to clear the muck. The removal of aircrew with fake degrees was also challenged in court. The plea taken was that university degrees have nothing to do with flying airplanes and if a pilot had a valid flying license, it did not matter if he or she had a bogus academic degree. This scribe participated in numerous TV debates on the subject, where the Collective Bargaining Agents representing the pilots removed for possessing fake degrees, were arguing that since the airline had spent so much money on the flying training of the pilots, even if they had bogus degrees, they should be retained.
When the International Monetary Fund gave Pakistan a $6 billion loan, it demanded an audit of PIA by the end of 2019, a deadline that was missed.
It is heartening that besides addressing the saga of fake flying licenses, in an effort to stop the financial hemorrhage, Pakistan’s national carrier is being restructured with a business plan that will eventually reduce the numbers of employees to 7,000 and increase the numbers of aircraft to 45. Nearly 3,500 employees will be laid off through early retirement and attrition. Temporary setbacks will be felt but a leaner but more efficient airline will ultimately emerge.

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF. He is a columnist, analyst and TV talk show host