BY dropping a bombshell on the floor of the National Assembly last week, Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan opened a Pandora’s box of problems that the government seems ill prepared to tackle. Since it has come to light that one-third of pilots in Pakistan allegedly have ‘dubious credentials’, international aviation regulators have barred PIA flights as more than half of the suspicious licences are held by the national carrier’s pilots. The UK and EU’s civil aviation authorities have withdrawn PIA’s permit to operate from their airports. Moreover, UAE aviation authorities have sought to confirm the credentials of Pakistani flight operations officers and aircraft engineers who hold licences issued by Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority.
There is no doubt that strict action must be taken against those who are proven to have secured licences through fraudulent means. Even if the licences are genuine, which appears to be the case for some, pilots must be penalised if it is proved that they cheated in exams. No leniency should be allowed to those who have committed wrongdoing as it is a question of the safety of millions of travellers. However, the government’s handling of the scandal has been disastrous. The fact that a list of pilots was drawn up and made public at a stage when an investigation was still underway shows how little thought the government put into this matter. Mr Sarwar was keen to clarify that no new licences were issued by the PTI government, but in his attempt to draw attention to the poor decisions of past rulers, he inadvertently dealt a death blow to hundreds linked to Pakistan’s aviation industry — many of them having earned their licences and degrees through legitimate means. All the pilots — and now even other aviation staff — are being judged for having ‘acting fraudulently’ even before the investigation results.
With this fresh blow, the credibility of all Pakistani pilots and engineers has been called into question internationally. Yet, the story of the rot within PIA and the CAA is not just about pilots. The saga spans decades and is fraught with monumental mistakes made by those in the administration itself. It is unfair to cast doubt on every pilot and technician simply because the government decided to blurt out the workings of a pending investigation. The minister could have approached PIA with the information and given it a chance to suspend flights rather than letting it be banned. The names should have been made public after the probe concluded and action taken against guilty individuals. Unfortunately, it is too late to undo the damage. The task ahead is more challenging still: an intensive review of all protocols and staff training — as well as the planes themselves — is in order. The government must see this crisis through to its logical end.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2020