Here we go again. The same conversation that we have been having for over a decade is back in the forefront one more time. How do we fix PIA?
Let’s start by dispelling a few myths. Yes many airlines in the world are national carriers, but almost all the examples given are from countries that can afford to run them in loss. Emirates, Etihad, Saudia, Singapore Airlines are all run by cash-rich countries that don’t have to choose between paying for their national carrier’s losses or investing in education.
Take another example being bandied about in the media: Malaysia Airlines. How many of those invoking this airline as an example know that the government of Malaysia, growing tired of the continuing losses at the airline, hired a German managing director last year whose first major step was to issue 20,000 termination letters to every employee in the organisation?
The majority of them were rehired the same day on contract, which changed the terms of their employment and made performance a key criterion for remaining in the job. Now how would those opposition politicians who have gone on TV to give the example of Malaysia Airlines as a model for Pakistan react if the government of Pakistan were to bring in a German MD, on a salary priced in euros, who started off by terminating everyone’s job in one stroke, then rehired a select number on terms similar to those of commercial organisations?
PIA’s losses have risen to match the levels of the circular debt, and they may well cripple the carrier altogether.
The government also has to explain a few things to us. When the previous PPP government moved down the same road, Nawaz Sharif objected, saying the entity should be turned around while remaining in government hands by selling some of its assets to pay off its loans then increasing its fleet size and adding more routes. Today, he’s following no such advice himself, committing himself instead to finding a ‘strategic investor’ for the airline only months after coming to office.
Can somebody from the government explain why their leader took one line when in opposition and another when in government?
The national airline is undoubtedly in deep trouble, and with the departure of Nasser Jaffar, the crisis is deepening. I had a chance to meet Jaffar in his office a few weeks ago, and we talked for almost an hour about everything PIA. He seemed a man beleaguered, engaged in day-to-day firefighting. Most of his time, he told me, was taken up arranging funds to pay off the airline’s debts, which matured almost every week. “We have to reschedule the debts, there is no other way,” he emphasised. Every week a new liability is maturing or a new payment has to be made to a creditor and the top management’s time is mostly consumed arranging the funds for this. Who can turn the entity around in this kind of shape?
So he hired a top-class chief law officer, and had just signed a deal with a chief operating officer from Lufthansa. I wonder what those two chaps are thinking right now. Then a number of opposition figures, again with PTI’s Asad Umar in the lead, announced their salary packages on air suggesting that such expensive human resource was a bad idea.
Jaffar was aware of this when we talked. Yes, he said, their salaries are very high. But when you look at how much money they have managed to save us due to their expertise, the salary figure pales in comparison. That was his logic, and those who have themselves commanded seven-figure monthly salaries, far in excess of what these two are getting, should be a little more careful about loudly proclaiming salaries of top management to be a core part of the problem.
Likewise with those who smugly point fingers at the workers. Yes there are numerous rackets running in the organisation, draining away its revenues. Yes the unions throw their weight around and prevent management from taking key decisions. But I have yet to see someone put solid numbers behind the claims that the payroll and the rackets alone explain the decline of the airline.
Claims of this sort remind me of an earlier myth that we all had grown accustomed to at one point in time. The power crisis, that myth said, is caused by theft of electricity in mostly poor areas of our cities. The poor were blamed for the whole affair. Another myth, loudly screamed from the TV screens in 2008 and 2009, as the power crisis descended upon us with its full ferocity, said that the whole affair has been created because the Musharraf regime didn’t add a single megawatt to the grid.
Both turned out to be factually wrong, but it took a number of years for that to sink in. The poor accounted for less than 2pc of all power theft, it turned out. And the Musharraf regime had probably presided over the single largest and most energetic push to not only add more generation capacity to the grid, but also diversify our fuel sources for power generation. The root cause of the power crisis was financial, and to some extent, governance-related.
Pakistan cannot live on hot air indefinitely. Today, PIA’s losses have risen to match the levels of the circular debt, and they may well cripple the carrier altogether. Throwing little factoids at each other as part of a political game will not change that. The only way forward is to put someone in charge whose capacity to do the right thing is beyond question — and there are many such people in the world — and let them make the decisions that need to be made. So long as they’re hemmed in by the unions on one side, the opposition politicians on the other, the courts on the third and the government with its political compulsions as a lid, nothing will change and we will still be asking each other ‘what ails PIA?’ a decade from now.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2016