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Islamabad airport bungling

May 08, 2016

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IN some ways, Pakistan can be considered the gift that just keeps on giving; the scale of blunders continues to grow, and little seems to be learned. The New Islamabad International Airport, the foundation stone of which was laid nearly a decade ago during the Musharraf regime, is after a series of delays and cost overruns, nearing completion —Dec 25, 2016, is the date being given by the Civil Aviation Authority. Shockingly, however, it is only at this late stage that a scandalous flaw in design has come to light. It has two parallel runways, which would allow aircraft to land or take off at the same time, which in turn would improve airport efficiency. But, these runways have been constructed at a distance of 200 metres from each other, while the standard set to allow concurrent landings and take-offs is one kilometre. In short, as the CAA director general informed the Public Accounts Committee in Islamabad on Thursday, it will not be possible for the new airport to handle concurrent aircraft movement. If the head of the CAA admits that the design flaw should have been corrected at the initial stage but was overlooked, it would have taken nothing short of effrontery to do so.

While this may indeed be a “criminal error”, as a PAC member termed it, the tale of monumental ineptitude does not end here. According to the CAA’s own audit report, presented to the PAC the same day, none of the 12 engineering management consultants hired for the airport project hold engineering degrees. Instead, they possess a bewildering galaxy of irrelevant certificates: homeopathy, business administration, technology — and some hold only basic Bachelor’s degrees. Were this not bad enough, according to the CAA audit report, the unsatisfactory performance of these gentlemen was in part responsible for the Rs19.39 billion cost overrun of the airport project, in addition to “different packages [being] awarded without due consideration [and] lack of coordination in execution of [the] package”.

Are these failings a case of inefficiency or corruption? Either way, the result is disgraceful and the matter requires being looked into. It is difficult to believe that such glaring inconsistencies managed to be overlooked by those who are required to execute a project of this scale — and, indeed, by the three successive governments under whose oversight the construction of the new Islamabad airport is now approaching completion. The project was earlier mired in controversy when its physical location became a matter of debate, with another location altogether coming under consideration. Now mismanagement and the wastage of funds have joined the list of talking points. The CAA needs to come up with a convincing explanation, and the parties responsible for such colossal blunders need to be identified and, if necessary, prosecuted. Bungling on such a large scale cannot be overlooked.

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2016