LET’S get one thing straight. The collapse of PIA did not happen overnight. The minister’s public proclamation that 262 out of 800 pilots certified by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of Pakistan are carrying “fake” or “suspect” licences was an important trigger for the ban on PIA flights landing in European airports. The larger cause was the failure to meet successive safety management standards.
PIA had lost its safety certification given by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) back in March 2012 after repeated incidents of minor accidents (like a tyre catching fire during landing) or sheer carelessness on the part of the flight or ground crew. But what the aviation minister did on June 24 was tantamount to taking a sledgehammer to an already fragile situation. First he announced on the floor of parliament that up to one-third of Pakistani pilots possess fake licences, and then followed this up by releasing a list with their names. In the communication sent to the PIA CEO (who had been demanding a list since the announcement was made), he did not say that the pilots in question have “fake licences”. Instead, he said that an inquiry has “indicated grounds to suspect the genuineness of several pilot licences”.
It turns out that the minister does not have evidence that the pilot licences in question are fake.
The language of the letter is significantly watered down compared to the bombast with which the announcement in parliament was made. What are these indications? What are the grounds to suspect the genuineness of the licences in question? All this has yet to be established. The letter sent to the PIA CEO did not say that these pilots have fake licences and should be turfed out. It said only that the pilots mentioned in the attached list should be grounded while formal proceedings under the relevant Civil Aviation Rules 1994 should be carried out. During these proceedings, the letter continued, “appropriate opportunity … shall be provided by Civil Aviation Authority to each individual pilot to clarify his/her position”.
Now take a deep breath and pause. It turns out that the minister does not have evidence that the pilot licences in question are fake. All he has are indications that give grounds to suspect this. Based on these indications, he can proceed under the established rules to determine case by case whether the suspicions are indeed borne out or not. And each pilot in question has to be given a chance to clear his or her position.
So an obvious question arises: would it not have been a better idea to wait for these proceedings to end, for the compliance report to be filed, and for final determinations to emerge in each case before going public in such a way? What was the rush to announce this matter so publicly that it couldn’t wait till the proceedings were finished? After all, the pilots in question would still be grounded till proceedings concluded, posing no risk to the safety of passengers.
What does the minister owe to those pilots who are successful in clearing their names during the proceedings? In all, he says the credentials of 28 pilots have been “confirmed fake”, of which some confessed. For the rest he says proceedings are still underway. He was at pains in his June 26 press conference to emphasise that the rest are just “suspected cases.”
In total, the Personnel Licensing Office of the CAA issues 22 different kinds of certifications and licenses. They relate to pilots, from gliders and ultralights and balloons to private and commercial pilots, both aeroplanes as well as helicopters. Then there are certifications for instrument rating, flight engineers, cabin crew competency, air traffic controllers, flight operations officers and technicians. Then there are ratings and endorsements and validation certificates.
In fact, the entire aviation sector of Pakistan stands on the CAA and its credibility. And now, with his words, the minister has smeared that credibility so badly there is no telling how long it will take to recover. Consider for example, that EASA, in its letter announcing the suspension of PIA flights from European airports, pointed specifically to the minister’s statement of June 24 as the reason for the suspension of flight operations. The other issues, primarily the failure to implement “all elements of a Safety Management System” all required months in which to be addressed, as per the timelines given in EASA’s own letter.
None of this is rocket science, nor can it be said that there are deep-rooted counter currents preventing the implementation of these steps, like there were in the case of implementing the action plan given to the Financial Action Task Force. Implementing a safety system of the sort called for by EASA is where the ministers’ energies were actually needed, rather than getting into an ego clash with the pilots union.
The EASA letter also makes clear that blaming the crash of flight 8303 entirely on pilot error is wrong. Instead, it points to “successive breaches of multiple layers of safety defences in the safety management system” as the reason.
The letter further states that based on the minister’s own statement regarding “fake licences”, that “Pakistan, as the state of operator, is currently not capable to certify and oversee its operators and aircraft in accordance with applicable international standards”.
The minister’s words, which were clearly fired in haste and before even all the facts were in, have clearly tarnished the entire country’s credibility to maintain and operate an aviation sector. Their impact has not fallen only on the pilots named in the list. From here on, it is not just PIA that has to prove that it has pilots and aircraft that are airworthy and adhere to internationally accepted safety standards. It is the entire CAA that has to prove that it has the capability required to issue a wide range of licenses and certificates, that its airports and air traffic control systems are up to international standards, and much more.
I sincerely hope whatever the minister was trying to achieve was worth all this, though I seriously doubt it.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2020