Aviation crisis

15 Jul 2020


THE rot in Pakistan’s aviation industry is deep and extends far beyond the national flag carrier. Now the FIA has registered a case at its Corporate Crime Circle, Karachi, against the private airline Shaheen Air International and arrested its director. The action has been taken following an inquiry initiated by the Civil Aviation Authority lodging a written complaint alleging that the airline had caused a loss of over Rs1bn to the national exchequer. According to an FIA official, the investigation found that SAI had defaulted on paying CAA’s flight operation charges and levies from March 2018 till date. The airline’s operations were suspended in October 2018; and even as 2,800 employees clamoured for their outstanding salaries, SAI’s owners fled abroad. The charges against the airline management are serious, and the case must be taken to its conclusion. While this is a different issue from that of the pilots ‘dubious’ licences — revealed in a bombshell statement by Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan last month — it nevertheless is also a manifestation of the lack of fiscal and operational discipline within the aviation industry as a whole. At the time, eight SAI planes were already grounded for being in “poor condition”. In December 2015, a Boeing 737-400 operated by the airline suffered severe damage upon landing in Lahore; 10 passengers were injured. A few months earlier, five of its aircraft had been grounded because of recurring safety concerns.

The minister’s revelation that 262 Pakistani pilots had suspect credentials — in tandem with the initial investigation report on the PK-8303 air crash — has cast the role played by the industry regulator, the CAA, in an extremely poor light. According to Mr Khan, 141 of the pilots concerned had been flying for PIA, 10 for Serene Air, nine for Air Blue, and the rest for chartered plane services and flying clubs. On Saturday, the CAA apprised the Supreme Court of the measures it is taking to prevent unauthorised access to its licensing and examination system. The ‘dubiousness’ of the licences evidently stems from the fact that certain pilots had had proxies sit the exam for them. There are also allegations that corrupt elements within CAA have deliberately made the examination process perverse and convoluted, making recourse to unfair means — for a price, of course — more tempting. While the pilots are certainly not blameless, the onus was on the regulator to ensure the integrity of its testing protocols.

A large number of pilots have been grounded for apparently having obtained their licences through questionable means, as they should be, but it is also worth asking what action the CAA is taking against its own personnel. Any investigation, to be credible and untainted by accusations of ulterior motives, must unearth those involved in corrupt practices at the CAA and sanction them accordingly. The festering problems in the aviation industry need a root-and-branch overhaul.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2020