KARACHI, Aug 7: Like most other national institutions, Pakistan International Airlines has been experiencing heavy turbulence for the past many years. Financial woes, a humiliating European Union ban on its aircraft and a revolving door of managing directors are just a few of the crises that have helped compound the national airline’s miseries.

However, the flag carrier’s new managing director is hopeful of charting a new flight plan for PIA which, he hopes, will steer the airline out of stormy weather and ensure a smooth ascent into calmer skies.

Captain Mohammad Aijaz Haroon, who has just completed his third month as PIA MD, talked to Dawn exclusively on Thursday at the airline’s luxuriantly refurbished Karachi head office (courtesy former MD Tariq Kirmani). The conversation covered a number of issues affecting the airline. However, Capt Haroon was most vocal about the ‘open skies’ agreements signed by the government with several foreign nations.

He termed them disappointing and expressed the desire for a review of these pacts in favour of the flag carrier.

“When you say open skies, the aviation division of the ministry of defence (MoD) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) don’t agree that there is an open skies (policy) in Pakistan. There is a deregulation policy that they have adopted. It has hurt PIA a lot. And it is still hurting. There are ways to correct that. We have highlighted our point of view. To a great extent now both the CAA and the aviation division of the MoD see that what we are asking for is justified. Once the political situation in the country settles down we will be able to take our case to the cabinet,” he said in reply to a question about the effect of the open skies policy on the national carrier.

He cited the bilateral agreement signed between Pakistan and Turkey to support his claim that because of such pacts, the PIA was getting the wrong end of the stick.

“Turkish Airlines started operations into Pakistan. A bilateral (agreement) was signed between Pakistan and Turkey. In it, it is very clear that PIA will operate to Turkey and Turkish Airlines will operate to Pakistan.

“In a bilateral, what is assessed is the flow of passengers between two countries. According to that flights are mounted by both the airlines. You know how many visas they are issuing, you know how many visas you are issuing, you know how many Pakistanis are working over there … this data is available. The bilateral agreements are signed to facilitate these people. In addition to that you also know the level of tourism between two countries.

“What has happened between Pakistan and Turkey — like all other countries — is that Pakistan is allowing flight capacity that is four or five times the demand. What happens is that instead of these airlines picking up traffic between these two points, because of the geographical location of their country, they pick up Pakistani passengers from here for Europe and America at throwaway rates,” he said.

‘Ruining the market’

“What they do is that the 25, 26 per cent of seats they, or any other airline, are unable to fill, instead of sending those seats empty, they come to this country and offer those seats at throwaway prices. They come and ruin my market. When an airline offers a Pakistani a fare for New York at $800, I can’t do that. If I sell at a higher price I lose that passenger. This is what has to be restricted,” Capt Haroon added.

He said that in contrast to the Pakistani government, the government of Saudi Arabia, with which Pakistan also has a bilateral agreement, ensures that the interests of its flag carrier are protected.

“There is a restriction on the number of passengers between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. We can only carry a certain amount of passengers to Saudi Arabia per week. The Saudis are firm on that. If they give me an open hand, I can have six flights to Saudi Arabia today and they will all go full. They have put the restriction to protect their airline. Pakistan is not doing that. “We want the government to put that restriction on Emirates, on Etihad, on Qatar, on Turkish … we name these countries which, because of their geographical location, take advantage of what is known as sixth freedom traffic. It’s good to be liberal, but you can’t be liberal to the extent where you start losing,” the PIA managing director said.

He was also critical of the Civil Aviation Authority for supporting the current policy of deregulation as he claimed it was causing a loss to the national exchequer.

“The CAA is being very short-sighted because they say that if more airlines come, we will earn more revenue. Our point is that if one flight goes from northern Pakistan to the UK, the revenue earned from one 777 flight a week is around Rs3.5 billion. Whereas what does a flight that comes once a week to Pakistan pay the CAA? Nothing more than Rs60 million. Who’s losing money? The government of Pakistan.”

EU ban

Answering other queries, Aijaz Haroon said that the ban imposed on PIA by the European Union in March 2007 reportedly due to the flag carrier’s lax safety standards had been caused by negligence.

“All our aircraft are subject to checks just like any other foreign carrier when they fly into Europe. These are random checks and safety inspections that they carry out on all foreign aircraft. Whatever defects they find – which can be something from as little as a seat backrest problem or a fused bulb – we attend to those. If we keep on attending to those things then there is no issue.

“The ban was imposed due to the fact that these things were highlighted to PIA and nobody attended to them. It’s an ongoing process and I don’t see that such a thing will happen again, InshaAllah.”

The PIA MD also said no plans were under consideration to privatise the flag carrier.

Fleet expansion

When asked about new destinations on the horizon and fleet expansion, Capt Haroon said Barcelona, Spain, and Dublin, Ireland, were new potential PIA destinations.

“We’ve already added Amsterdam and Bradford. Come January we will be introducing Barcelona and Dublin. If we cannot do two destinations with the present fleet than Barcelona will have the priority as there’s a big Pakistani community in Spain.

“Coming to the fleet, yes, we have to change our fleet. We have a plan for that. We want to replace all our A310s and 737s with new aircraft because we want to have an airline where the fleet is no more than seven to eight years old. It will help reduce our fuel and maintenance costs. Our regularity and punctuality will automatically improve.”

When asked which aircraft manufacturer was being considered for PIA’s fleet expansion, Capt Aijaz Haroon said options from both major aircraft manufacturers were being considered.

“There are two major manufacturers in the world right now. One is Boeing and the other Airbus. We are looking at medium-range aircraft. We’re looking at both manufacturers. Wherever we get the best deal, we are going to go for that. That decision has yet to come. The technical evaluation has been done and there is hardly any difference (between) the two.”