ANOTHER ignominious chapter has opened in the wretched saga of the national flag carrier. On Friday, it was learnt that a PIA Boeing 777 had been seized at Kuala Lumpur airport on the orders of a Malaysian court in a $14m lease dispute.

The aircraft was about to depart for Pakistan when the local authorities asked that the crew and passengers disembark. From the details available, it appears that this particular jet is one of two leased by PIA from a Dublin-based company and is part of the portfolio sold by the latter to Peregrine Aviation Charlie Ltd, which is the plaintiff in the case.

As per the interim injunction, PIA is barred from moving the two 777s once they have landed or parked at Kuala Lumpur airport pending the next hearing later this month. The other jet affected by the order was recorded by a flight tracking service as being in Karachi last month.

The decline of an airline that started out with such promise, that was a pioneer in many respects and was instrumental in setting up some of today’s most successful airlines, is an unmitigated tragedy. Decades of mismanagement, nepotism and political opportunism were bound to take their toll. Successive governments saw PIA as a means of rewarding the loyalty of supporters and the airline’s cadres were packed with undeserving people.

With time, PIA became a byword for mediocrity and dysfunction — a frightening decline in an environment where the slightest mistake or oversight can cost lives, and indeed did so. For this, the Civil Aviation Authority as the regulator must shoulder a large part of the blame. Perennially deep in the red, PIA has needed to be bailed out by the government on a regular basis. Within the past year, it seems all the chickens have come home to roost.

The crash of PK-8303 close to the Karachi airport in May 2020 precipitated a series of disastrous developments. As the preliminary investigation report showed, the incident — in which 97 out of 99 people on board perished — was the outcome of several avoidable but deadly procedural errors. Then, almost immediately after, the aviation minister declared that the CAA-issued licences of 260 Pakistani pilots working in various local and overseas airlines were ‘fake’, a reckless statement that pre-empted the outcome of an ongoing inquiry. His words created a global furore.

PIA was banned from operating in several parts of the world by various international airline safety boards; and Pakistani pilots employed by foreign carriers were suspended until the provenance of their licences was investigated. In the end, the number of fraudulent licences turned out to be far lower, but the damage was done. PIA has yet to recover from that catastrophe, and now this fresh embarrassment has surfaced. What is the airline management’s game plan? Does it even have one?

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2021

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