The plane truth
Presently the PIA fleet comprises 38 passenger aircraft of varied (passenger) capacities and two small Cessna aircraft that can carry only two passengers each. Its commercial fleet comprises seven types of aircraft.
A cursory look at the details of the fleet shows that most of its aircraft are very old, some of these were manufactured way back in 1985 — over a quarter of a century ago. Even the latest entrants to the fleet in 2007 are now around half a decade old.
As most of the fleet is very old, many aircraft need regular visits to the engineering department. But most of the trained and qualified technical hands in the engineering department have switched over to Middle-Eastern airlines in quest of better working conditions and monetary benefits after much suffering at the hands of the organisation.
Out of the 38 aircraft at least 17 were under maintenance — eight of these were under unscheduled maintenance and nine under scheduled maintenance in engineering — at the time of writing this report. Due to bad governance and lack of timely procurement of spare parts and engines, many aircraft remain grounded, their engines swapped with other aircraft or under repair. For example one Boeing 743 was minus four engines; similarly another B743 was minus one engine while yet another B743 had damaged landing gear obviously in need of replacement.
In the case of a B777 ER, one of its engines was tagged as ‘life restricted’. One of the telescopic struts of an A310 needed replacement while the aircraft was minus both the engines. Another A310 was minus both the engines as well. A third A310 had developed a fault in its landing gear in Amsterdam so the aircraft had to be ferried sans passengers to Karachi and straight to the engineering department for repairs. The fourth A310 was also minus both the engines.
Two aircraft, a 31L and a B737 were minus both engines. One of the ATRs that had been hit by a bird in the right wing tip area awaited spares, and was also minus both engines. Another ATR required a change of one engine. The third ATR aircraft was under assessment after an accident at Lahore airport when the pilot hit some pillars off the runway.
The airline was operating at least four of its aircraft with unserviceable Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) which provide power to the aircraft to start up the engines, operate air conditioning and electricity on ground.
Jobs for friends
The deterioration of the airline started with non-merit based postings of non-technical people to strategic positions. Many top positions were also political assignments, once even a matriculate was posted on the important post of a director.
According to sources, a pilot used to bring gifts including caviar, cigars, etc. for an influential person (a family member of a top politician who was under trial and in jail in Karachi but later himself became the most important political personality in the country), and gained the post of the head of the airline. When he eventually had to be replaced due to the protest movement of airline workers, the same politician posted one of his school mates, also a pilot, to head the airline. Later, when this person also failed to bring any improvement in the organisation, an air force man was brought in, who during a speech confessed that he had no knowledge or experience of running a commercial organisation; he did bring in some improvements but had to leave on medical grounds to be replaced by another pilot.
A foreign national was hired to improve the engineering department for over $25,000 (tax-free plus perks) per month, as he was the relative of an influential person. During his tenure, the airline faced restrictions in Europe as its aircraft did not meet the European Union safety standards.
Later another person was hired as a consultant at an exorbitant amount as he was a close relative of the airline chief. Though the airline has a well developed and fully staffed public relations department, consultants costing millions of rupees have been hired on contracts of political nature.
Gifts for enemies
When caught in some misconduct, the airline has also used unethical means like bribes for officials of other countries. Millions of rupees were spent on ‘gifts’ for Saudi officials to waive off fines and penalties imposed.
Mismanagement in assigning duties of the flight crew has also cost the airline a great deal. Pilots get a guaranteed 70 hours flight allowance (a major chunk of their salary), regardless of whether they fly or not. The management favours some pilots by giving them extra duty over the guaranteed 70 hours, so that they can get the additional allowance. On the other hand, pilots not popular with the management got less than the stipulated 70 hours. The airline hence dishes out huge allowances. If the duties were assigned in a way that everyone flew for 70 hours, the expenses would come down drastically.
When buying a new aircraft, it is preferable to purchase rather than lease. However, if the latter option is availed, it is important that the lease is short term and dry lease is preferred to wet lease for aircraft. (Dry lease is when only the aircraft is leased; wet lease is when crew also comes with the aircraft.) Aircraft similar to those already in the fleet are given preference so that the airline’s existing crew and engineering department is utilised.
Accountability? Say that again…
An honest aviation expert at the top is a must as it is a highly technical job, where friends and cronies must be kept at a distance. Ruthless accountability must be exercised against the past managements responsible for the airline’s present sorry state. With zero accountability, people at high posts loot as long as the sun shines. Insiders suggest that unless strict accountability is enforced — like when a former airline chief was handcuffed — the airline will further deteriorate.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is also responsible for the deterioration of the PIA fleet and crew as it rarely takes any action against the organisation, since several PIA ex-officials serve at strategic posts in the CAA.
The last director flight safety of the CAA was a PIA employee; after he returned to the airline, the position has been vacant for the past couple of years. A PIA pilot who was a flight inspector in the CAA was given the (acting) additional charge of director, though he did not have the required qualification. When he returned to PIA, another PIA pilot, working as an inspector was given the same post. It is interesting to note that although he has been serving as director for over a year now, which is a senior position, he actually does not even qualify for an inspector which is a junior post, as he does not have the required flying hours to his credit. How does one expect such people appointed at strategic positions to take tough or honest decisions, particularly relating to their parent organisation — PIA?