SC wonders whether sale of PIA Airbus is national offence

Updated 13 Feb 2020

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The mysterious sale of a PIA Airbus caught the attention of the Supreme Court on Wednesday when it questioned whether the sale of the plane — a public property — amounted to national offence or not. — Wikimedia Commons/File
The mysterious sale of a PIA Airbus caught the attention of the Supreme Court on Wednesday when it questioned whether the sale of the plane — a public property — amounted to national offence or not. — Wikimedia Commons/File

ISLAMABAD: The mysterious sale of a PIA Airbus caught the attention of the Supreme Court on Wednesday when it questioned whether the sale of the plane — a public property — amounted to national offence or not.

Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed expressed surprise over the casual attitude on part of the national flag carrier to pursue the matter and asked whether such incidents have ever happened in other airlines of the world where the chief executive officer (CEO) sells off a plane just like that.

The observation came during the hearing of an appeal moved by Air Marshal Arshad Malik against the Sindh High Court (SHC) order which had restrained him from carrying out any function as CEO of the Pakistan International Airlines.

The petitioner had contended before the high court that Arshad Malik was a serving officer of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and his appointment as PIA chief was made in utter disregard of law laid down by the apex court in its judgement of Aug 3, 2018, against the appointment of the then CEO.

Reportedly a British company had chartered PIA’s Airbus A-310 for the purposes of a film, which was shot in Malta, following which the aircraft flew to Germany and then sold for Rs190 million. The film company had also paid PIA over $200,000 as rent for the plane. Bernd Hildenbrand was the CEO of the PIA then.

From Malta, the Airbus flew directly to the Leipzig Halle Airport museum in Germany, the media reports had suggested. The reports also said that the aircraft had already completed its flying hours and was no longer airworthy since it was a 30-year-old aircraft and had already been grounded.

Senior counsel Salman Akram Raja, who was representing the PIA’s Board of Directors, however assured the court that he will furnish a comprehensive report about the aircraft, but informed it that the matter was already under the scrutiny of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The counsel also agreed to the immense need to change the culture in the PIA.

“How can the former CEO leave the country in the first place,” Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan observed, adding that who authorised the sale of the aircraft also wondering why it was done in a discreet manner.

That person must be in jail, the chief justice regretted but here nobody was bothered about the aircraft which was the public property.

“You cannot secure your aircraft from your own employee,” the chief justice observed also wondering whether NAB would go to Germany to retrieve the plane.

The chief justice also wanted to know about the steps taken to get the aircraft back also suggesting that the PIA could have purchased some aircraft from Etihad Airways which owned a fleet of 200 aircraft when they put these for sale to overcome their losses.

He also inquired about the old aircraft of Aero Asia and Shaheen Air, which were getting rust at Karachi. Could not these aircraft be utilised by the PIA to enhance their operations, the chief justice said.

The court, however, was told that these were leased aircraft, the owners of which were in the process of removing them.

The chief justice was also critical about the Islamabad-Karachi bound PIA fare which has gone to a staggering Rs70,000. “PIA is making revenue by exploiting people,” he observed. You cannot run airlines by selling its assets, the chief justice said.

Justice Ahsan regretted that the unabated selling of routes, indiscriminate issuance of licenses and absence of thought process by introducing other airlines in competition of the PIA had created a mess.

During the hearing, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah also expressed surprise by asking why the PIA did not carry out complete process to appoint a full-time CEO who was also a serving officer of the PAF in contravention of the earlier judgments of the Supreme Court.

At this the chief justice observed that the present CEO must have left the PAF before joining the PIA, adding that national airline needed to have a full-time management head who could concentrate fully to bring improvement in the airlines.

“He is already an employee of the PAF then how can he be given a fresh appointment,” Justice Shah asked.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2020