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Dateline Islamabad: Arrival of three wise men


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Why not three wise women? Pakistan International Airline continues to be the preserve of men. Where are the women? Mostly, passengers travelling in business plus are  the lucky recipients of service by pretty, petite and polite air stewardesses. But for the rest travelling economy, only stewards serve.

Gender equality is not visible in PIA. Women have yet to pierce the glass ceiling to reach decision-making level. And yet women know better than men how to make flying PIA an experience worth repeating. Top class food, service, hygiene, environment and inflight entertainment does not cost the moon. All it requires is a team of women and men with aesthetic sense.

A front-page news item in an English daily headlined ‘Three serving military officials appointed in PIA’ leaves one to conclude that PIA fat cats drawing prodigious salaries and perks are morons, therefore military men have to be called in. Quoting PIA sources, “Brigadier Hamid Usman, Colonel Atif Dar and Wing Commander Zulfiqar will constitute a task force and will remain appointed in PIA for three months. They will not draw any salary from the airline.”

The three uniformed men will zero in on PIA’s human resources. Their mandate is to prepare a ‘report’ for the defence ministry. Obviously, they will dig deep and perhaps pull out some dead donkeys in the wells of corruption. But are they experts in human resources? What’s their track record? More importantly, is this just one more exercise in futility or does the defence ministry mean business this time around?

Successful corporations around the world give high priority to the training of their personnel. It’s people at every level of an organisation who are the drivers of business. Hiring the right people for the right job is the responsibility of the human resource department, headed by someone qualified for the role. What if the head is a sifarshi himself? What if he is routinely involved in sexual harassment? What if he is mediocre, corrupt and unfit for the job?

Travelling last month from New York to Lahore on PIA in economy class was an affair to remember. “Never again”, I vowed. “Pay a little extra but fly a decent airline.” Dirt, decay and rot greeted one. The seats were threadbare, the folding trays had decayed food stuck on them, the carpet everywhere had grime and was worn-out, the shutters on the window didn’t work, the overhead lights never came on and one consequently stared in the dark with the book carried to read sitting idle in my lap throughout the 13-hour journey. “The lights will come on,” said the steward. What else could the poor fellow say, knowing full well that this aircraft had covered several trans-Atlantic flights with a dead overhead electrical system.

PIA’s inflight food was once the main attraction for passengers like us. Forget it! Apart from a smaller serving size, the biryani was cold, tasteless and tired. The chicken boti was definitely aged. The snacks served were equally unappetising. Obviously, whoever in PIA gave the contract for the supply of food pocketed money, while we the passengers ended up shoving down cold, old and cut-rate stuff down our throats.

The service in the economy is chaloo. Rarely did one see a steward walk down the aisle except at mealtimes when he would push a food tray your way without a word or a smile. I happen to catch the one serving us standing at the help counter on our arrival at Lahore airport. The young handsome man showed more alacrity on ground than in the air. Would you like to give me your contact so that we can talk about PIA’s awful performance, I ask him. He smiles (the first time I see him smile) and writes down his name and his cell number. While we wait to board our onwards flight from Lahore to Islamabad, he volunteers to tell me the horror story that is PIA.

“I have been a steward for seven years. I have received minimal raise. Only 30% of PIA’s earnings are spent on the running of the airline and our salaries, the rest 70% vanishes into thin air,” he says. “Currently a contractor in the Middle East has sued PIA for illegal termination of his contract. The power houses sitting on the two hills of Islamabad decided to give the lucrative contract to their own favourite who must have paid them huge kickbacks. They don’t care if PIA is left to deal with a pricey lawsuit from the former contract.”

The steward is not hopeful of PIA’s revival. “Like the rest of the country, PIA ka khuda hafiz.” He does not intend hanging around to see the airline go under. “I have already a scholarship for MBA waiting for me in Australia.”

Will the three wise men charged to investigate PIA’s human resources consider approaching people like the steward for a frank, unvarnished feedback? Will they assure them of confidentiality, promising to keep their identities secret?

Some years ago, I met two people working for PIA at its New York office. Mirvat Omar, an Egyptian woman was full of angst against her employer. “I’ve been a ticketing agent ever since 1986. I moved over to PIA almost 23 years ago. They will not promote me nor will they sack me. I’m tired, frustrated and very angry, but if I resign today, I lose everything but if they fire me, PIA will have to pay all my dues.” I quoted these lines in my Dawn column of January 31, 2010. Mirvat was paid a minimum wage of $2,000 a month. Most of it went in her long commute out of New Jersey. “I’m a single mom and need to work to run my home.”

She is still the ticketing agent; still helping Pakistanis with their bookings whenever she’s at the sales counter which is now infrequent. She’s lost hope and a will to serve.

The ‘other’ PIA staffer I met that summer’s day in 2009 was station manager Ali Uddean Ahmad. He had recently been posted to the most difficult job of his career — dealing daily with Pakistani travellers like myself with all kinds of requests, some bizarre, some doable.

When I travelled last month and asked for Ali, I was informed he had been posted back to Karachi. On a promotion, I hope? I said to his successor. Ali, toting a walkie-talkie, the fleet footed, serious faced and brisk station manager was always present at JFK in New York for the tri-weekly arrival and departure of PIA flights to and from Pakistan. He was a hands down guy making sure his ground staff was equally expeditious in helping passengers.

Focused on his duty as though it was an investment, Ali Uddean Ahmad is a model for the three wise men exploring PIA’s human resources. Having spent 33 years perfecting application systems that ensure that flights take off and arrive on time at JFK, one of America’s busiest air terminal, Ali told me, “I have spent all my life in operations and have trained several PIA personnel. I am always available to sort out any issue that may arise — from baggage ramp to the passenger boarding and cargo airlifting.”

Many of us may not know, but according to Ali, PIA tops the list of airlines flying with the highest number of passengers to cargo ratio. “I am proud to say that in the past 11 months, PIA holds a record of taking off on time from JFK.”

But Ali is now back in Karachi. The three wise men will do well to tap him for expert advice on how to train and manage a team.

Merit bankruptcy aside, some PIA officers are morally bankrupt. Often, sexual harassment incidents never come to the surface. In the US, the first thing human resource department tells a new hire is to immediately report such occurrences because the company does not want to be embroiled in a costly lawsuit. According to press reports, PIA was slapped with a similar lawsuit when Pilot Captain Riffat Haye complained in the Lahore High Court that she and her female pilots were harassed by their male colleagues; discriminated against and treated shabbily. What was the conclusion of the story? Was the case withdrawn or offenders punished or not? Such stories are never followed up or chased to conclusion. The wise men must take up the issue of sexual harassment in earnest and not push it under the rug as is often the case.

Such damning allegations alone in America, if found true, can sink a ship.

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Comments (21) Closed

Mar 31, 2013 03:56am
If soldiers can be tasked with running an airline then it would only be fair if airline crew are allowed to become officers in the military. No one, neither the soldiers nor the airline crew seem to be doing their jobs so what difference does it make where they work.
Mar 31, 2013 03:59am
The military should be amalgamated into the Commerce Ministry where their business interests lie. Meanwhile the terrorists terrorizing the country should be handed over the defense ministry. Everybody happy and let the public fend for itself.
Mar 31, 2013 04:01am
The PIA is a dysfunctional, useless organization. The orgazaization should be disbanded and the national excequer saved from any further loss. Since, there is no national carrier in countries like the United States, therefore there seems to be no reason that Pakistan should have one.
Yousuf Panawala
Mar 31, 2013 06:33am
PIA is one of the cow which is milked by powers that be. They forget they all are sailing in the same boat- Pakistan. If they damage the ship for their own personal benefit, one day the ship will sink and they will also sink with it along with the whole their generation whom they are training to loot and plunder.
Mar 31, 2013 06:46am
We need three wise men for Railway and three wise men for steel mill and three wise men for running the country,
p r sharma
Mar 31, 2013 08:19am
Does the feed back sheet from passengers not obtained ?. It will give the first hand information immediately to rectify / improve the services immediately.
Atif Alvi
Mar 31, 2013 08:28am
I believe this is the state of affairs with all our government run institutions, let alone PIA!! Do we still need the so called champions of democracy or looters??
Mar 31, 2013 09:57am
Stopped flying PIA some time ago partly because of sub-standard service and part partly because of monetary considerations! In a quasi democratic set-up where corruption and patronage rules the roost there can be no other solution than privatization!
Farid Midhet
Mar 31, 2013 10:25am
No they will not sink with the boat called Pakistan, because they have their life-vests and lifeboats ready and they will be rescued by helicopters. They will watch and enjoy the spectacular event of the sinking of this great ship from a very safe distance.
M. Alvi
Mar 31, 2013 10:39am
Which sinking ship? The ship is already sunk. No one can do any more damage. Pakistan is listed as failed state now. No one is safe in this failed state.
???? ??? ???? ????? (@intellekCHAWAL)
Mar 31, 2013 12:36pm
excellent post...
Ajay New York
Mar 31, 2013 01:29pm
A very interesting article madam.. Air India is headed down the same path . Try Qatar Airways next time.
Mar 31, 2013 01:47pm
What happened to the Slogan " GREAT PEOPLE TO FLY WITH " ? I remember of the 60's when that a slogan resonated with the reality.
Agha Ata (USA)
Mar 31, 2013 01:50pm
If wise men have to be educated of these lines of investigation, then they are not wise men. If it is really a must, then FOUR WISE MEN would be a better choice.
R Niaz
Mar 31, 2013 02:36pm
In a country where there is no accountability for anything...anything at all what can one expect? The resources have been plundered by the very people who claim to be the saviors. And each one of them had gotten away with blue murder! And what's more is that they're coming back for what is left. Who in Pakistan has ever been held responsible? I worked in PIA for 12 years with complete dedication and honesty. I left in 1988 knowing things would never change!! Incompetent "safarshis" with PPP's or military backing were the only people who made it to the top. Everyone else who worked hard was seen as a sucker. As new airlines emerged in the Middle East (several that PIA's staff planned and set up...Emirates being of them!) most hard working honest people who could leave, left. Some had to stay because of family obligations and personal reasons. As a single woman I witnessed harassment first hand...sexual and otherwise. Women were disrespected, put down, gossiped about, sneered at...and more. If you got through a day without it you were lucky. Many women were single and responsible for households...their need was exploited. Women worked twice as hard and did twice the work of men but were never rewarded! As far as I know only one or two women made it even to the level of a General Manager. Most of the time when it came to promotions women (and many hard working, honest men) were pushed to the sidelines. The tacit message sent to the women was that they'd be left behind if they were unwilling to chat up their male bosses. If you didn't know anyone influential you better have God on your side! I now live in NYC and as a matter of principle always fly PIA except for last year. I have personally witnessed Mr. Ali Uddin's hard work and dedication. He is the stuff directors and leaders are made of. I am almost sure he was transferred to Pakistan to accommodate one of the government's or military's cronies. By the way, in the 1980's Zia-ul-Haq appointed his brother-in-law Air Cdr. Saleem as the General Manager in NYC (no background, no training, nothing!) He then hired an American firm (and I'm told for huge kickbacks) to go to Karachi and do a 6-12 month study on PIA and come up with solutions. The promise was that it would make PIA more efficient and cost effective. PIA paid thousands of dollars to have someone come from abroad for the the work that could have been done in-house by personnel who knew the airline inside out. Nothing ever came out of it and standards began to deteriorate further. It has been downhill for a very long time But the matter of fact is that PIA is a microscopic version of all that's going on in the rest of the country...riddled with corruption, bereft of any morality or decency and its very fabric in tatters. Unless something revolutionary happens and wrong doers are taken to task it will alas be "business as usual".
Mar 31, 2013 04:58pm
My father retired from PIA as a commander on 747, yet I am embarrassed to say that I choose other airlines as well. Ditto on all the reasons including army comming in to "evaluate" flaws! Look what a wonderful job they have done elsewhere in the nation. Competition is the key to maintaining standards & offering quality products. Nationalization has never helped any industry. When PIA is out-competed by other airlines that offer better service, it will be a life lesson...but then when have our people ever learned from history!
Mar 31, 2013 05:07pm
You nailed it! It isn't immoral to make money but to "sink the ship" for a few bucks, when long term investment in building a business benefits many & allows one to leave behind a legacy, a family can be proud of.
Mar 31, 2013 05:10pm
Who is incharge of PIA? I think Ahmed Mukhtar MPA from Gujrat headed it for some time . These people should be brought to justice and investigated. Railways and Steels Mills is another example.The problem is that no one is answerable to the public for mismanagement and fraud. Accountability is needed. There should be a system in place where people responsible in each department should be punished for corruption and mismangement. Now Chief Justice cannot solve all these crimes by himself. Where are the Politicians elected to serve the people? They are the biggest criminals themselves. It needs to be fixed by a few good men, who definitely exist somewhere in our decaying country. We have to find them and elect them to the higher office, this is the only way to cleanse the system.
Mar 31, 2013 06:31pm
I personally have not found anything wrong with the international flights. Though it is clear that passengers behave quite rudely towards airhostess's as they know they are on PIA. Our people just change their behaviour completely with their own fellow country people. Try behaving same way with staff on other airlines and you would be put to your place.
Mar 31, 2013 08:47pm
Not whole Truth. All govt run are equally shabby...India and Pak. Why?....Over employed by force of Politics
Apr 01, 2013 12:21am
GOP has stopped running PIA like a commercial entity. PIA's current state is no different than the country itself. FIx Pakistan first. PIA will start flying and Railway will roar again.