A SIGNIFICANT course correction seems to be on the horizon for the country’s commercial aviation sector. Some days ago, a special cabinet committee met to finalise a government plan to bifurcate the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority into two separate regulatory and operational oversight entities — the Pakistan Civil Aviation Regulatory Authority and the other the Pakistan Airports Authority. The CAA board has decided to review the move and present its input after incorporating the members’ concerns, one of which involves security. The move to outsource airports has been in the pipeline for some time; in fact it was proposed under the last PML-N government, but nothing came of it. When the PTI came to power, it revived the plan.
The proposed bifurcation of the CAA is a step in the right direction. For some time now, lobbies within Pakistan’s aviation sector have been influential enough to resist reforms that would have enforced discipline and enhanced accountability, particularly where the national flag carrier is concerned. As a result, matters continued to slide. The PK-8303 air crash and the ‘dubious licences’ fiasco dealt a huge blow to the state’s credibility in managing aviation safety, and the need to change course acquired a new urgency. If the bifurcation goes ahead, it may be simpler for practical reasons to retain the regulatory body’s name as PCAA, separate the other functions and place them under PAA. Most importantly though, the regulatory entity must be staffed with professionals: they should be experts who can ably run its various units such as flight operations and airworthiness inspectorates. Qualified personnel should be given the responsibility to implement the ICAO, FAA, EASA and aircraft manufacturers’ guidelines, standards and directives. This is a critical regulatory function where the CAA has performed shabbily. And appointing officers on deputation from the military and civil bureaucracy to undertake these specific functions is not the answer. The government must not rush into legislative changes to bring about this new system before doing its due diligence. Civil aviation authorities in developed countries can be a useful guide for Pakistan to review and from where it can adopt best practices. The CAAs in these countries function purely as regulators whose responsibility is to ensure safety through oversight of operators. In these places, the management of airports — even air traffic control and radar — is outsourced; the regulatory body is the final authority on safety regulations compliance by all parties concerned.
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2020