THE disastrous consequences of the Civil Aviation Authority’s cavalier approach towards its core regulatory duties, particularly where the national flag carrier is concerned, are continuing to play out. Only last Friday, Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan expressed the hope that the ban on PIA operating to and from European countries would be lifted soon. Believing that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s concerns about the CAA’s licensing process had been satisfactorily addressed, PIA had asked EASA for provisional permission to resume its European operations while conducting its safety audit of the airline. However, EASA’s response has dashed those hopes. It has said that because the investigation by the European Commission and the International Civil Aviation Organisation has not yet been concluded, the ban remains in place. In fact, it has been extended by a further three months, a situation that will be reviewed only after EASA conducts an audit.

The situation is not only mortifying in terms of reputational damage but also causing the national airline massive financial losses. Foreign carriers have been quick to fill the gap created by PIA’s hobbled operations. Certainly, CAA has taken action against its personnel who played an active role in issuing ‘fake’ licences, and those who acquired licences through fraudulent means have seen them suspended. Nevertheless, for a scandal of this magnitude to take place requires an enabling environment marked by a lackadaisical approach to rules and regulations, not to mention a stunning disregard for human life. And this environment permeated the aviation sector as a whole, not only PIA. That the rot was allowed to fester for so long made the tragic May 22 crash of PK-8303 almost inevitable — just as it did other fatal accidents of domestic flights in the years preceding. When the aviation minister, a few days following the above-mentioned crash, rashly said that about a third of Pakistani pilots were not qualified to fly, it created a furore that was not going to die down. This time, no shortcuts, no quick-fixes, no ‘assurances’ will convince overseas authorities of PIA’s airworthiness. Nothing less than an independent audit by EASA itself will do. Meanwhile, authorities here need to build the aviation sector from the ground up with the help of foreign experts on issues of training, inductions, airworthiness, safety, maintenance and licensing. And those who have allowed PIA to come to this sorry pass should not be allowed a role in the airline’s next chapter.

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2020

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