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Same formula: PIA’s problems

July 17, 2013

A SUPPOSEDLY professional, apolitical management is in place now, but old habits die hard it seems. The formula to make PIA profitable again appears to be the same regardless of how political or non-political its management. The struggling airliner asks for a fistful of cash as an emergency bailout. It usually wants the fanciest of new aircraft to operate and a grotesquely bloated employee count is one of the items on the priority list. In addition, or perhaps linked to that last point, a political heavyweight or two in the incumbent government remembers relatives or friends employed by PIA who were treated unjustly, obviously by the previous government, and those heavyweights make it their business to right the wrongs done unto their near and dear ones. So it is that two brothers of Senator Mushahidullah Khan, the PML-N information secretary, have been retrospectively promoted in PIA and the family believes that an injustice has been righted.

In the larger scheme of things, especially for a top-heavy, massively overstaffed organisation, the promotions of the senator’s brothers may be a small affair but it does suggest that a true shift in institutional culture, both on the political side and in PIA, has not yet taken place. And surely, putting aside the PML-N’s pledges about transparency and a by-the-book approach for a minute, that cannot be a good thing for either politics or airline business.

Yet, the broader issue is of PIA’s survival itself. Having asked for Rs16bn and drawn up a wish list that the government is supposed to pay for, the new management of the national carrier has been given Rs7bn. Was either the demand — for Rs16bn — or the actual bailout sum — Rs7bn — grounded in a viable plan? The demands for emergency cash infusions vary. Sometimes it is Rs20bn, at other times it is several times that for new planes; then again, it can be a smaller sum to allow the airline to keep its planes up in the air for the next few hours or days. But the basic questions are never really answered. Is PIA’s immediate problem that the average age of its fleet in service is 16 years or the fact that it has 18,800 employees for the 24 planes it operates, an employee-to-plane ratio of more than four times the global average of profitable airlines? The un-happy truth is that for all the red on PIA’s balance sheet, the airline has learned that it can milk the government endlessly.