Since the unfortunate Crash of PIA flight PK 8303, the aviation industry of Pakistan is in crisis. After the preliminary report was made public and it was presented on the floor of the National Assembly, Many questions have come into existence. The story has caught the international attention of Pilots having dubious licenses. Followed by EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) action, which banned PIA for 6 months, panic is increasing. Pilots blame Aviation Division and Civil Aviation Authority and the government blames the previously politically influenced hirings. Who to blame actually? Let’s try to find out.
Fake Pilots Scandal in PIA
PALPA (Pakistan Airline Pilots Association) comprising of pilots of PIA only are said to have a great influence on Pakistan Aviation and Pakistan International Airlines. PALPA’s perspective after the minister of Aviation’s speech is neutral and optimistic. They have invited the officials to jointly investigate the dubious license holders in PIA and other airlines as well. The private carrier’s stance has been professional. They clearly offered complete support in the investigation process of named pilots. The list of suspected license holders is dubious itself. It contains the names of people who have died or left Pakistan. Some of the pilots hold FAA licenses, yet are named in the list. The pilots with valid credentials are facing media trials and social pressure from their families and acquaintances. This brings another safety concern over flight safety. Pilots in general aviation are also facing similar conditions which raises many questions.
The term “Fake Pilots” gets a lot of attention. The term fake here actually refers to illegal means. This shows that these licenses were anonymously made. However, the case is pretty different. There is an unknown ratio of pilots who have acquired their Airline Transport Pilot Licenses through unfair means. These pilots have allegedly forged papers and bribed the officials to clear their licenses. One thing to keep in mind is that all of these pilots have to go through their simulator check every six months. The sim check is conducted with a Civil Aviation Inspector. Hence the term Fake does not truly fit the situation. Most of these pilots have more than tens of thousands of hours. They are highly skilled with millions spent on their training already. But in this case, the credibility of the regulator is in question. When the back doors are provided by the regulator, someone will seize the opportunity. The organization cannot be blamed since the issuing authority is trusted by all stakeholders.
However, there is no doubt that the airline is in a sorry state of affairs for over 15 years. The main reasons were corruption, politically influenced hirings, and a severe lack of morals. There is no second thought in a statement that PIA has pilots with suspected documents or dubious licenses, but the situation got from bad to worse after the fatal crash of PK8303 which has opened a pandora’s box of potential safety breaches within the organization.
Times of Unions
Like every generic state-owned airline, the role of unions everywhere around the world is supposed to protect the worker’s rights while keeping the collective benefit of the organization on priority. But the situation at Pakistan International Airlines is totally inverted. Some unions exist on the basis of their political affiliation. The most powerful and reasonable union is the Pakistan Airline Pilots Association (PALPA). Though this pilots union always has been in the headlines whenever any situation or crisis is faced by the airline. PALPA’s role in the growth of airlines has always been complex in my opinion. Some of the demands made by PALPA had my complete support such as providing the PPE and protection kits to pilots in repatriation flights during the COVID-19 pandemic. The demand for keeping the crew rest time a priority during a regular flight schedule. Allegedly, there had been a lot of safety breaches proposed by PIA management and blackmailed the unions to fly under those conditions.
However, since the reality cannot be denied and people at PALPA also know very well how many of politically influenced hirings were made in PIA in previous governments. The merit was killed and deserving candidates were rejected entirely because of having no political affiliation. Why was PALPA quiet at that time? Why the potential whistleblowers did not report it to relevant authorities at that time? Why no strikes were made at that time? This puts a question mark on the credibility and ethics of PALPA and its managing committee. If the pilots and PALPA knew that the management is going out of the way, why no strike was made at that time? Is it that the strikes are just to get a raise in salaries?
This means unions only seem to act on situations where it has personal gains of the pilots. Similarly, the other unions of other departments pressurize the management over several other matters such as the posting of employees to Islamabad station. Whenever we see a conflict between the management and the unions the loss is always incurred by the organization. Since 2004 the airline has not posted any profitable figures in its balance sheets. Whenever any employee or the union is at the target of management to rectify the problems, The unions file cases against managerial staff in courts, especially Sindh High Court. Subsequently, the courts grant them the Stay Orders and the growth of the organization stays at the least priority. I am not against the unions if they speak of individual rights and collective good for the entire organization. if the only goal is to achieve personal gains then the unions have to be taken down with no second thought.
Pakistan Air Force Airlines?
However, the other side of the story says that since the politically influenced unions who blackmail the civilian management are slightly unable to taste similar fruits when it comes to management that has a military background. The government thinks that for the airline to grow, unions must be taken down which is why we see the man in uniform leading a commercial entity. The airline has a history of its leaders from the air force. The famous Air Marshal Nur Khan is on top of the list among General (R) Pervaiz Musharraf among the last well-wishers of the airline. The Musharraf tenure was the last time when PIA inducted brand new airlines and made profitable income.
Read More: Malik Nur Khan; Man of Steel
The Lost Glory of PIA
Pakistan International Airlines was considered a symbol of professionalism. The airline has many first-ever records to its name. The aggressive growth in the late ’60s and early 70’s enabled the airline to be ranked as one of the best airlines in the world. The credits to such glory cannot be completed without the name of Air Marshal Nur Khan and his team. In 1962, the first lady of the United States of America, Jacqueline Kennedy embraced Captain Salehjee at London Heathrow, after a wonderful flight experience on PIA. The first lady gave a new identity to PIA which till now is a part of PIA’s slogan “Great People to Fly with”.
The airline helped many airlines in different regions to build and grow. Today, one of the world’s leading airlines, Emirates leased airlines and pilots from Pakistan International Airlines to start its operations. The first flight of Emirates EK601 was operated by PIA’s Airbus A300B4 and crew. Not only airlines, but PIA also helped many airports to prosper as well and Dubai’s DXB airport is one of them. The competition was extremely low in those times, the innovation and the kind of services today’s passenger expect. In the 1965 and 1971 wars, PIA transported the soldiers and highly sophisticated ammo setting an example of patriotism. PIA is the airline that brings the deceased corpse free of charge on its network. Serving the citizens of Pakistan had been an additional Job description even in a pandemic.
The Bounce Back
Since 2006, Pakistan International Airlines witnessed a huge decline in all terms. Whether you call it services, revenues, professionalism, work ethics or you name it. By the time the mindset was developed and professionals were retired, Mafias took over and the airline was damaged internally throughout the decade. Every stakeholder in the airline from a Janitor to the CEO is equally responsible for the current state of affairs. So what next? Europe already has taken this into consideration to Ban the airline from entering European airspace. The best is yet to come which is feared by the pilots that if ICAO stops considering Pakistani Licenses to be worthy of conversions.
We often hear this PIA needs to bring back its Lost Glory. But how exactly that is possible in today’s time? It’s simple, the airline needs a visionary leadership which I believe Air Marshal Arshad Malik can take onto his shoulders. Every single employee has to take the responsibility to adopt professionalism. A complete restructure and rehaul of the critical departments along without any second thought the firing of those who seem to affect the airline’s operation with their so-called political affiliations or intentions to blackmail the management through them. Pakistan International Airlines has the potential to become at least a reputable airline in the world. The social and cultural barriers have become so strong that we have lost the airline somewhere. Now, there are only airplanes that have left who we see just flying around.
Privatization is the only solution left if the government has plans to keep the airline flying. No one in the whole army of employees will relinquish their personal benefits for the airline’s collective benefit. The only way to make your employees productive is to give them the freedom and fear of losing a job. In Pakistan, once you are appointed in the state-owned entity, it means you have just won a lottery. Because the mindset and trend show that employees are fearless because they know the unions will back them and if somehow the management fires them, the courts will grant the stay orders and till the stay order exists, that person keeps humiliating the airline. This has become a norm and those who seek employment in Pakistan International Airlines only wish to have such benefits over anything.
In the end, I would like to say that this time either we make it or break it once and for all. The blame game has to stop, everyone has to be responsible and collectively put efforts for the revival of the airline. Otherwise, our markets will be completely captured by foreign carriers and the foreign reserves will continue to go out of the country.