Our aviation mess

Updated 18 Jul 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

FOLLOW the smell today in Islamabad and it will take you straight to the Aviation Division.

And there you will find the problem. Not just any problem — no ladies and gentlemen — but the problem. Unsafe airlines, ill-trained traffic controllers, dubious licensing procedures, cheating in pilots’ exams, yep all somehow rotate back here. That’s not all. If you want to know a fundamental flaw in how this government is being run, and the culture that is incubating incompetence, well the proof is right here.

Let’s try and de-clutter this clutter. On June 24, Federal Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan unleashed himself upon an unsuspecting world. Standing on the floor of the National Assembly he declared that of the total 860 Pakistani licensed pilots working within the country and abroad, 262 may have fake degrees and licences. That’s 40 per cent of the total number of pilots, the minister reiterated for those who may have missed the enormity of the earlier number. In a follow up press conference the same day, the minister repeated the number but added the word mushkook (suspected) to explain that the credentials of these 262 were suspect.

The director general of the UAE Civil Aviation Authority wrote a letter to the DG of our Civil Aviation Authority on June 29 and said: “May we also request a clarification between ‘FAKE’ and ‘SUSPECT’ cases ‘if any’ so we may take immediate and appropriate actions…”

When blunders happen, can consequences be far behind?

Sundry cabinet members are running around conjuring up all kinds of things to show the boss they are ‘performing’.

In the coming days and weeks, at least 10 airlines asked for proof of Pakistani pilots’ credentials. These included airlines from Turkey, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Hong Kong. We all know misery loves company. So the European Union Aviation Safety Agency suspended PIA authorisation to operate to the EU member states for six months. The International Air Transport Association also expressed its concern while the US Department of Transportation also revoked PIA’s permission to conduct charter flights to the United States. Then the US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Pakistan’s air safety rating after expressing concern over the licences and certifications of the pilots.

Then on July 13, the Aviation Division pulled another rabbit from its foul-smelling hat. In a letter addressed to the acting director general of the civil aviation authority of Oman, the director general of CAA, Hassan Nasir Jamy, wrote: “It is important to note that … Pilot Licences issued by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority are genuine and validly issued. None of the Pilot Licences are fake, rather the matter has been misconstrued and incorrectly highlighted in the media/social media.” The DG continued: “PCAA has already verified/cleared 96 Pakistani pilots out of 104 names received from various civil aviation authorities…”

How does one interpret this inconveniently convenient contradiction?

The answer may sprout forth from the multilayered mess within the Aviation Division and CAA which in turn symbolises a deeper malaise afflicting the government apparatus at large. The aviation minister was supposed to unveil the report of the PIA crash and not expected to rake up the pilots’ licensing issue which, though being investigated since early 2019, was nowhere near finalisation. So why did the minister lose focus?

Or did he lose focus?

This is where the plot thickens. Performance anxiety is weighing down on the PTI government. Every minister wants to ‘perform’ for his boss. But there’s a problem: while everyone from the prime minister downwards has been talking of performance, nobody has identified what this performance entails. Big ticket items — reforming FBR, fixing police, reviving the economy, turning around public sector enterprises, declaring an education emergency, building world class hospitals, enforcing rule of law — have floundered on the rocks of incapacity, inability and ineptitude. What is left is for ministers to do something — anything — that can be sold as ‘performance’. So sundry cabinet members are running around conjuring up all kinds of things to show the boss they are ‘performing’.

Before he was aviation minister, Sarwar Khan was petroleum minister. He was shown the door from this important ministry to pave the way for the induction of someone who was expected to — yes, you guessed it — ‘perform’. Now as the aviation minister, Sarwar Khan had a terrible crash on his hands. What could he do to perform, oh what could he do? And that’s when the pilots’ licence inquiry came in handy. He could show this as proof of performance. But the inquiry was half-cooked. Someone deep in the bowels of the Aviation Division must have told him so. Or did he?

There’s a twist in the tale.

The minister sits atop the Aviation Division, while the federal secretary runs it. It is safe to assume that what the minister said in his speech about pilots’ licences being fake would have been based on the brief provided to him by his ministry. This information would have been gathered by officials of the Aviation Division, approved by the secretary and handed to the minister. It follows then that if the information is inaccurate, the minister is not the only one to blame.

But then the director general of the CAA, in his letter of July 13, contradicted the information given by the minister. If we assume the information was vetted by his secretary, then the DG CAA contradicted the aviation secretary. Here comes the twist: the secretary of the Aviation Division is also the DG of CAA. Yes, it’s the same person.

Perhaps the CAA board could have ensured this strange contradiction not happen. Guess who is the chairman of the Board of CAA? Yes, the secretary of the aviation division, who is also the DG of CAA, is in fact also the chairman of the CAA board. Perhaps there is a valid explanation for this mess.

Perhaps best to follow the smell.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.

Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2020