THIS refers to news report ‘New body to steer PIA out of turbulence’ (June 29). This should be taken as another routine statement to revamp Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Let us first look at its present condition. PIA suffered a loss of Rs38 billion in the first three months of the year; 171 per cent more than the last one, as reported in the media. The total debt is staggering at around Rs750 billion.
As long as the government keeps pumping money into PIA, there will be no change. In fact, PIA’s downfall had started the day we introduced open skies policy in 1990 that has been an unmitigated financial disaster for Pakistan.
The country has lost billions of rupees in the last three decades mostly to airlines from Gulf countries, and the policy had ruined our national carrier. There was no harm in the policy per se, but we failed to protect the interest of the national carrier. Successive governments failed to opt for PIA’s privatisation, and merely talked about revamping it and making it a leading airline. What actually happened is a different story.
When PIA was in a nosedive and employees were not getting salaries on time in 2015, it closed some lucrative routes, like Barcelona, Hong Kong and Istanbul. Our major traffic and chunk of revenue was handed over on a platter to foreign airlines.
PIA has rightly been criticised over its lacklustre performance and worsening quality of service. It still has a seriously high ratio of staff compared to the number of aircraft it has. Using this argument, the axe always falls on the lower cadres without anybody bothering to slash the top management which is even more seriously out of proportion.
The fact is that PIA is not suffering due to overstaffing because the pay roll stands around 12pc of the expenses. Simply put, the airline needed aircraft. It was not rocket science, but instead of buying seven to eight aircraft, we played politics over the matter. It is an unwritten convention that whenever a new chief of any state-owned enterprise or corporation comes in, he brings his own team and PIA has certainly been no exception. This should have been discouraged, but was not.
As long as we do not get rid of political influence and institutional pressures while appointing the top man, things will never improve. It was in 2020 when the government suffered international humiliation on a most irresponsible statement by the then aviation minister regarding dubious pilot licences. As time has proved, it was nothing but a ploy to damage the airline further.
This alone helped foreign airlines make billions by taking over PIA traffic. We sold lucrative routes, stopped direct flights to destinations and made Dubai and Istanbul as hubs, thus restricting PIA movement. Someone must have made money; a lot of money.
By not addressing the root causes, we are simply chasing shadows in the dark. The priority should be to arrange at least seven planes. Instead of negotiating route selloffs, we should take back the routes we have already sold over the years. There has to be a highly professional, aviation-related CEO, and 50pc of the senior management must be shown the door.
Finally, there should be no free tickets or even concessional fare for at least the next five years. We need to act now to revive our national carrier.
Lt-Col (retd) Mukhtar Ahmed Butt
Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2023