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New order for aviation causes uncertainty

Updated July 07, 2013
—File Photo.
—File Photo.

ISLAMABAD: A sudden decision by the government to separate civil aviation from the defence ministry and create an independent division to administer its affairs has pushed the aviation sector into a whirlwind of uncertainty.

Soon after assuming office, the government announced the creation of an aviation division which, critics say, was done in haste and with little homework. The transfer of civil aviation from the defence ministry began a fortnight ago, but the process would take a few more weeks to complete.

The aviation wing at the defence ministry had been dealing with the administrative and financial matters of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Airport Security Force (ASF), Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and the Met Department. The new arrangement has put these organisations under the newly formed aviation division.

Fears and uncertainties in the aviation sector are being fuelled by the absence of a coordination mechanism for dealing with issues that would continue to be under the defence ministry’s domain.

At the core of the problem are the CAA and the ASF.

Most airports are dual-use facilities in that they are used both for civilian traffic and military purposes by the Pakistan Air Force.

The air traffic is jointly controlled by the CAA’s air controllers and the PAF personnel. Besides, serving military men form the nucleus of the ASF.

“Right now there is no interface for coordination between the defence ministry and the aviation division and issues would soon arise.

Internationally, interfaces exist where separate aviation ministries run civil aviation,” a senior officer, who oversaw the aviation sector, feared.

Captain Sohail Baloch, president of the Pakistan Airline Pilots Association, agrees to the need for having a functional coordination mechanism.

The aviation official pointed to the sensitivities of use of airspace — an issue that may always remain contentious between security institutions and civilian managers of aviation.

Dealing with air violations, whether by military or civil aircraft, is the job of the air force, the officer explained and said that unified command of the CAA and the PAF was always helpful.

The most recent air violation by the Indian Air Force aircraft in the Attari sector was spotted by the CAA’s air controllers who communicated it to the PAF and fighter aircraft were scrambled to challenge the intruders. Such swift coordination, it is feared, may not be possible in the new arrangement.

There are also apprehensions about the sensitive national security data being compromised when two separate institutions will be dealing with the airspace.

“There are at times secret missions whose confidentiality has to be maintained, but when there are two separate agencies dealing with the information there is always a chance of its leakage,” a security official said.

Presence of a serving PAF officer as the number two in the CAA hierarchy illustrates the imperativeness of the cooperation and coordination between the two organisations.

AIRPORT SECURITY FORCE: The ASF is currently commanded by serving army men and its personnel are governed by the Manual of Pakistan Military Law.

There are apprehensions that putting these people under civilian command could lead to legal complications.

There are already indications that police officers may be brought in to replace military officers. This move, security officials warn, will be disastrous for the security of airports given the track record of police in dealing with terrorism.

Backdated promotions (from 2008) of PIA employees Rashidullah and Sajidullah, brothers of PML-N Information Secretary Senator Mushahidullah, is cited as an example of how affairs may be run in future.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST: While questions are being asked about the haste shown by the government in the creation of a division for running the civil aviation, appointment of Shujaat Azeem as prime minister’s adviser on aviation has also raised several eyebrows.

Mr Azeem, who was the chief executive officer of Royal Air Service — a ground handling company — before assuming the new assignment, is reportedly a partner of Chaudhry Munir, the main infrastructure contractor for the New Benazir International Airport, Rawalpindi.

Airports come under the CAA, which is now a subordinate department of the aviation division being led by Mr Azeem.

This, it is said, is an example of the conflict of interest.

Mr Azeem is a former pilot of the Lebanese Hariri family and had started his career as a PAF pilot.

His appointment also signals softening of the PML-N’s stance on dual nationality for public office bearers. In addition to being a Pakistani national, Mr Azeem also holds Canadian citizenship.

According to a military source, Mr Azeem was court-martialled during his stint in the PAF and his not-so-good memories in the air force may be unhelpful for developing the interface with the defence ministry for coordination.