Aviation in tatters

May 18, 2020

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COVID-19 is proving to be a disaster for Pakistan’s aviation industry. When Pakistan’s first aviators started their operations, they had no idea the type of adversities the industry was going to face. From the weak government bureaucracy to unsafe operators, the aviation industry in Pakistan has had its fair share of challenges.

The pandemic can prove to be the last nail in the coffin for aviation businesses if not handled properly. Pakistan’s airports are a gloomy sight nowadays. Before, they were usually bustling with life with flights coming and going and student pilots learning the trade of the sky as airport handlers were hard at work making sure everyone is safe.

Covid-19 put a stop to all that and business owners feel that they will not be able to handle pressures for much longer. There is a mixture of actors responsible for this, from weak government policies to the locals that are ignoring standard operating procedure (SOP) protocols.

The government recently lifted strict lockdown measures to ease the pressures of declining economic activity. For the aviation industry that is the saving grace that it was looking for. However, while the lockdown has been lifted, people are not following the guidelines that were given by the government. Social distancing and essential-travel procedures are being ignored.

‘When the lockdown was enacted, the government gave an option to apply for a special SOP to continue operations for certain businesses. These SOPs were sold to whoever had the deepest pockets’

This can result in a negative backlash for the aviation industry. We all know that in the coming weeks, we will see a spike in the number of Covid-19 patients, and it might call for the government to go into lockdown again. Aviation businesses will have to follow suit, even if they were strictly following SOP protocols.

Speaking with a spokesperson from Sky Wings Flight Academy, a Karachi-based flight school, I learned how Covid-19 has reduced its business exponentially. “The pandemic has grounded all flights; no student or instructor is getting anywhere close to the number of hours they were logging earlier this year.”

For a business like this, it can take years to recover because of the long chain of causation in the industry. Airlines are not operating at full capacity, meaning there is less demand for pilots resulting in flight schools having lesser students. This will also lead to other aviation businesses losing demand. “It can take years to recover even after the pandemic is over. We can only run at capacity if big aviation is running at capacity,” said the spokesperson.

The government has a major role in ensuring the nation’s businesses are safeguarded. Nonetheless, aviation businesses are leading their own charge to ensure safety because their confidence in the government has gone down.

Imran Aslam, a leading aviation expert in the country said: “when the lockdown was enacted, the government gave an option to apply for a special SOP to continue operations for certain businesses. Even during these tough times, government officials were looking for their own advantage, rather than the greater good for our nation’s economy. These SOPs were being sold to whoever had the deepest pockets, while honest businessmen were being put out of business.”

Logistics and travel account for more than 12 per cent of the world’s GDP. In Pakistan, air and sea cargo is the bread and butter for many. Domestic flight traffic nearly came to a zero in the past month. Stranded travellers and rotting goods became a common sight in Pakistan’s big cities.

The government needs to start thinking of a specialised Covid-19 response policy for the aviation industry. If that is not done in the close future, businesses and workers will have to start packing their bags and gear up for unemployment.

The writer is a candidate for Master of Arts in political science from the University of Waterloo

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 18th , 2020