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Central to all allegations about a plane that went missing and popped up in Germany is former Acting Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Bernd Hildenbrand.

To recap: an Airbus-310 (A-310) that was owned by PIA was first rented out to a film company by Procurement Director Air Commodore (retd) Imran Akhtar, brother of former director general of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Rizwan Akhtar. The plane was flown to Malta for the film company.

The A-310 was a “fly-worthy” aircraft. And yet, with it having been taken out of service for filming purposes, it never returned to the PIA fleet. Three departments — Marketing, Finance and Corporate Planning — were entirely bypassed by the procurement director. And the plane itself landed in Germany, in Leipzig, to be displayed at a museum.

Till recently, PIA had been claiming that the plane was never sold in the first place and it still had ownership of the plane. In truth, Akhtar removed Operations, Engineering, Marketing, Finance, and Corporate Planning from the loop and made the transaction without any kind of approval from the board of directors. The plane had working auxiliary power units, avionics and landing gears, among other parts. The film company offered 245,000 Euros for the aircraft while the German museum charged 45,000 Euros in marketing fees for displaying the aircraft in their museum.

The issue was raised in a Senate sub-committee session. This was attented by Irfan Elahi, 13 senators including Muzzaffar Hussain Shah, Gen Qayyum, Farhatullah Babar, Mushahidullah, Sherry Rehman and others. Senator Saleem Mandviwalla took the dais with documents claiming that just the fuel cost incurred by the national flag carrier was far greater than the sum paid by the film company.

While Bernd Hildenbrand is accused of having flown the plane to Germany, the role of Imran Akhtar has escaped public scrutiny. He could only have used and abused the aircraft if he had the permission of the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) to do so. And he did: writing to the civil aviation, Akhtar asked for its de-registration from the aviation authority, even though that wasn’t his job to begin with. And to make matters more complicated, well-placed sources claim that influential quarters are now trying to have that letter expunged from the records so as to camouflage the act.

How did he get away with it?

Because at the helm of the PCAA is a friend: Irfan Elahi, also the chairman of PIA and the aviation secretary.

As the clamour increased at home about where the A-310 had disappeared, an inquiry was set up to probe the matter. The inquiry report was finally penned by two officers, Legal Advisor Ahmed Rauf and Chief Internal Auditor Javed Mansha. They held Hildenbrand and Akhtar responsible for the fiasco, asking the latter why he initiated the loan and sale of the aircraft when he wasn’t authorised to do so in the first place. The probe report raised questions about why the three departments that should have been in the loop for the sale of the aircraft were bypassed. It also claimed that Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) rules had not been followed and due process was bulldozed.

In a statement issued by Senator Saleem Mandviwalla later on, the politician reiterated the claim that the A-310 had been sold without any award of a tender. “The market value of PIA’s A-310 was in millions of dollars but it was sold for just 5.3 million rupees,” he said.

Notwithstanding the inquiry, the fly-worthy aircraft had been sold for the price of scrap. But after its sale, a tender was finally issued in Pakistani newspapers while the plane was parked in Leipzig. No potential buyer in Pakistan could physically inspect the plane. The advertisement wasn’t printed in German newspapers and that precluded any potential buyers in Europe. The bottom-line, however, was that a tender was issued on an asset that PIA didn’t own at that point.

Such was the gravity of the case that the incumbent air chief, Sohail Aman, issued a statement declaring that if Imran Akhtar is indeed caught by the National Accountability Bureau or the Federal Investigation Agency, the air force would not stand by their man (who was in service at the time). A few days later, ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar resigned from service.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 26th, 2017