SENATORS from the opposition had a busy day in the House on Monday as they grilled Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar whose ministry also oversees PIA. The national flag carrier continues to be in dire straits both economically and operationally. While its airfares have skyrocketed in opposition to the trend seen elsewhere in the regional airline market, PIA’s performance falls drastically short of passengers’ expectations. Flight cancellations, inordinate delays, an ageing fleet, technical faults, a hefty debt burden, compounding losses, political appointments, overstaffing, an unprofessional management and poor service are factors that have pushed PIA to the brink. Government interference at the appointment and management levels continues to be behind many of the unfortunate facts that keep PIA from being airborne with grace.
Scandals at the airline have abounded in recent years, though not all have been politically motivated. Much of the fleet is grounded. The aircraft that fly are said to do so under precarious technical conditions, which has resulted in the embarrassing ban on all but certain types of PIA planes flying to western destinations. Other controversies such as an arrangement to contract out the provision of spare parts to a single Dubai-based firm have also led to concerns over non-transparency in such dealings. The agreement to share flight codes with Turkish Airlines, whereby PIA would give up most European and North American destinations to the said airline by terminating its West-bound flights at Istanbul, was no less controversial. All this, while the airline’s fortunes have kept diving deeper into the red, impacting on its operations.
According to the defence minister, a potent financial shot in the arm is what the doctors propose for the ailing carrier; a restructuring plan has been sent to the finance ministry while the prime minister awaits recommendations from a committee he had set up to right the wrongs at PIA. This is all very well, but these measures will only serve as palliatives and not as a permanent cure. Besides a bailout plan, the airline needs a structural overhaul, a professional management that should determine and stick to an employee-aircraft ratio, and non-interference from the government in its affairs. This means saying goodbye to political appointments, besides shedding the burden officialdom places on the day-to-day operations of the carrier through the reservation of seats and subsidised air tickets for government functionaries and other beneficiaries. Operational losses can be overcome and profits made only by having in place a management that is well versed in modern aviation practices. There is no dearth of qualified professionals in the country; only the political will is lacking.