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The men in the cockpit: Chairman Irfan Elahi (left) and CEO Musharraf Rasool Cyan (right)
The men in the cockpit: Chairman Irfan Elahi (left) and CEO Musharraf Rasool Cyan (right)

On December 21, 2016, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif announced a major reshuffle of the bureaucracy. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was without a chairman at the time, as the old one, Azam Saigol, had resigned after an aircraft, PK-661, travelling from Chitral to Islamabad crashed near Havelian. The incident claimed the lives of 47 passengers and crew members. PM Sharif handed PIA to Aviation Secretary Irfan Elahi, marking the latter’s second tenure as chairman of the national flag carrier.

The outgoing chairman had brought in a former professional of German airlines Lufthansa, Bernd Hildenbrand, first as a chief operating officer (COO) before elevating him to the position of acting chief executive officer (CEO). Both Saigol and Hildenbrand had seen an upturn in PIA fortunes — a product of making infrastructural upgrades and changing its branding. New planes were being leased, flights had achieved “90 percent” punctuality, and PIA passengers had increased by one million.

But of course Hildenbrand was not Elahi’s choice.

In fact Hildenbrand was interviewed and hired by former aviation advisor to the PM, Shujaat Azeem. Since the German was over 60 years of age, approval was sought from the PM to relax rules. Similarly, the requirement of a business degree was relaxed as Hildenbrand’s aviation diploma from Lufthansa was accepted as a valid certification. However, the German later became embroiled in a number of corruption cases — the most prominent of which is the sale of an A-310 aircraft which is currently abandoned at the cargo port in Leipzig, Germany. In February this year, Hildenbrand was removed from his CEO post and demoted to COO once again.

In April this year, he was removed from PIA altogether. Hildenbrand left the country on May 4, 2017 after his name was put on the ECL and mysteriously removed following the German Embassy’s intervention. Interestingly, nothing written in black and white was given to Hildenbrand as an explanation or show-cause notice. The charge-sheet issued to him does not have the chairman’s signatures but that of then human resources director.

The incoming chairman, Elahi, now had to hire a new CEO and a new COO. A new chairman coming into an organisation floored by debt ought to have brought in competent professionals to help drag the airlines out of the doldrums. Not Elahi — he handpicked the CEO and COO, both of whom did not come from aviation backgrounds. Indeed among the eight candidates (out of 11) who met the criteria set for the CEO’s post were former managing directors of the PIA, Ijaz Haroon and Junaid Younus. And yet, Musharraf Rasool Cyan became the CEO while the COO chosen was Zia Qadir Qureshi.

A university teacher by profession and without any aviation experience, Cyan submitted documents with two different dates of birth: the date on his Matriculation certificate is March 12, 1967. The date of birth according to his CNIC is November 4, 1967. According to chapter 34 of the PIA Personnel Policies Manual, only a matriculation certificate or a valid birth certificate could be accepted at the time of hiring. Cyan then had to submit an affidavit declaring that the date of birth on the CNIC is correct.

“This was only a one-time requirement,” claims PIA spokesperson Mashood Tajwar. “If the discrepancy is solved at the start, then there is no problem.”

Here’s the twist: more than 350 employees have already been dismissed on charges of discrepancies in their dates of birth as detailed on CNICs and educational documents. About 250 cases on the same issue are also pending with the PIA administration.

In the case of Qureshi, he assumed responsibilities in PIA on July 14, 2017 on a two-year contract. The problem was he would turn 60 on October 30, 2017 — three months after being hired. The rules dictate that the PM issue a formal approval for employment if an employee has to work beyond the age of 60 years.

But approval didn’t come easily; PIA had to write twice to the Aviation Division to have it approved from the PM. Terming it a non-issue, Tajwar “believes” this matter has been resolved and approval has been granted.

But both hirings set the tone of Elahi’s PIA. Hirings and firings came on ad-hoc basis, often without any justifications. In Passenger Sales, for example, General Manager Nausherwan Adil and Deputy General Manager Zubair Memon were removed from their positions without any accusation. Similarly Chief Human Resources Officer Raheel Ahmed as well as general managers Zafar Ali, Akbar Shah and Mehdi Chingezi were all removed from their positions without any charges formally being brought against them.

Well-placed sources claim that those removed from service did not see eye-to-eye with the chairman on many affairs, including double promotions awarded from PG-VIII to PG-X on a single day. In fact the former human resources director, Raheel Ahmed, is said to have been removed after the chairman found out that Cyan and Qureshi’s credentials had been leaked to the media. The chairman assumed Ahmed as the source of the leaks and removed him from service.

Meanwhile, on the PIA WhatsApp group ­— which is a means of communication between senior officers — there are rumblings of dissent and dismay at how the national carrier is being run. Some senior personnel have announced that they intend to leave the airline rather than being made scapegoats for the questionable decisions being taken by senior bureaucrats, who they feel will escape accountability.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 26th, 2017