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PIA’s great mess

Published Dec 07, 2012 12:10am


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ON Dec 2, PIA’s flight PK 308 on the Karachi-Islamabad sector narrowly avoided a serious accident when one of its engines apparently caught fire.

Given PIA’s recent track record of such near mishaps, this incident too would have passed off unnoticed, had it not been for the fact that the chief justice of Pakistan was travelling by this flight. A cover-up is now not possible.

PIA has been in the news over the last two decades for all the wrong reasons. Delayed flights, near mishaps, overloaded aircraft, pilots reportedly flying in a state of inebriation and crude behaviour by cabin crew have become its hallmark.

The airline is in a financial mess. In three years it accumulated a loss of over a billion rupees. It has developed the habit of coming up with bailout plans, essentially involving injections of cash that would help it buy new aircraft. Ask any PIA apologist for a solution, and like a stuck record, he will come up with the mantra of “more aircraft”.

PIA’s problems are essentially organisational and managerial. Let me explain. First, for reasons that are purely historical, but defy logic, the airline works under the administrative control of the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

This arrangement is not found anywhere in the world, except possibly in some banana republics. Airlines should ideally be autonomous business enterprises, and where a linkage with government becomes necessary, it being a major shareholder, a ministry of aviation or transport should be the supervisor.

Second, the problem is compounded by the fact the airline regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also works under the same ministry. Resultantly both PIA and CAA are packed with serving and retired officers of the armed forces. In PIA, this exercise is limited to the upper echelons; in the CAA it is all pervasive.

Such an arrangement is bound to create trouble. A conflict of interest is obviously involved. My experience as DG, CAA showed that whenever the regulator tried to take corrective action, the MOD intervened asking the CAA to “go slow”.

In their earlier years, the chief executives of both PIA and CAA were drawn from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). A sense of camaraderie prevailed between PAF colleagues and it was rare for PIA to be disciplined. It was one big happy family, with PIA acting like a spoilt child being endlessly humoured by the MOD. The icing on the cake came when the present regime appointed a serving PIA pilot as head of CAA. How on earth could he ‘regulate’ his parent airline?

Third, PIA thrived as long as it worked in near monopoly conditions. New planes were purchased with no questions asked and the government continued to pour money in regardless. PIA went on a recruitment binge. Today it has a staggering manpower-to-operational aircraft ratio of over 500.

Compare this to Lufthansa (127), British Airways (178) Singapore Airlines (140), United Airlines (119) and Air France (245) and you get an idea of the magnitude of the problem. Fourth, PIA was often saddled with problematic personalities by the MOD. After 1991, an ugly confrontation developed between a succession of chairmen and managing directors. Their duties were clearly not delineated by the MOD and each fancied himself as the chief executive. Two individuals in particular, continued to surface repeatedly like the proverbial bad penny to claim the position of chairman and MD, PIA. Decision-making ground to a halt.

Fifth, the deteriorating law and order situation in Karachi added to PIA’s woes. Foreign airlines (British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM and Air France) wound up operations in Pakistan in quick succession. PIA should have grabbed the opportunity to fill this vacuum, but beset by managerial confusion, it procrastinated. Middle East carriers were more than anxious to come to Pakistan.

As a part of Nawaz Sharif’s open skies policy, I as DG, CAA concluded a number of agreements that opened up Karachi and the northern gateways to Middle East carriers. This move left PIA very unhappy, but there was no alternative. The unpalatable fact that must be accepted is that PIA just does not have the wherewithal to compete with foreign airlines.

Sixth, as a result of all these factors the area that suffered most was maintenance. Expertise gradually whittled away and standards rapidly fell. The PIA website proudly boasts of an engineering wing that undertakes maintenance of commercial aircraft from foreign airlines. One only wishes that it would pay similar attention to its own fleet. Or is maintenance downgraded to make out a stronger case for periodic purchases of new aircraft?

Seventh, the CAA miserably failed to function as an effective regulator. In the late 1990s, it was downgraded to category II. Its Airworthiness Directorate remained a silent spectator and watched PIA break every rule in the book with impunity.

The MOD preferred to look the other way. In 1999, Nawaz Sharif saw the writing on the wall and created a separate aviation division which he asked me to head. After the coup of October, 1999 Musharraf reversed this decision and we were back to square one.

Eighth, both the PIA and CAA boards are appointed on patronage alone. To an extent this happens everywhere, but some effort should be made to evolve a healthy mix of experts in aviation, finance, management, business practices who would then shepherd the affairs of the airline.

Instead, cronyism is the watchword. Individuals specialising in dairy farming have headed flight replacement committees, party workers, retired bureaucrats with no exposure to the aviation industry, two- and three-star generals find themselves on the PIA and CAA boards.

Can PIA be salvaged? Yes, but only if some difficult decisions are taken. We need a leaner, professionally manned airline run solely on business considerations. The regulator needs to be completely revamped. A ministry of transport should supervise aviation in Pakistan. Failing this, PIA’s woes will continue to fester.

The writer was DG, Civil Aviation Authority.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (31) Closed

Zaheer Ahmed Dec 08, 2012 01:26pm
A well reasoned logical analysis. The question is whether the Defence Ministry is willing to part with all the goodies that come with PIA and CAA?
Ofk Dec 07, 2012 07:45pm
A foreign ownership, is not the only solution. You have to realise its good people running the show that matters. Take for example the time when PIA was the jewel in the crown of the Asian Airlines (see wikipedia). It was under frmr. Air Marshal Nur Khan (and i think Asghar Khan before that), PIA was one of the best airlines of Asia. Latest aircraft, best & professional service. These people were from retd. Airforce, but they knew how to get the job done. I have seen advertisements in Western magazines dating from the 60s-70s, when PIA was the airlines to travel with in Asia. Unfortunately, like many institutions in pakistan, PIA was done in by the corrupt politicians, who made political appointees, rather then based on merit alone. The best solution would be to either declare bankruptcy, and to (sadly) lay off workers & renegotiate contracts from top to bottom hierarchy.....and/or to break the airlines into two. One as a new entity to serve the foreign and far flung/emerging markets....a full fledged airlines. And the other as a budget regional carrier. In any case, PIA has too many employees, and too many incompetent people sitting at the top.
Farrukh Dec 07, 2012 07:46pm
Excellent Analysis, Mr. Chaudhry, I hurts to see PIA in such shambles. I believe the factor # 1 and # 4 of your analysis are root cause of this current mess at PIA. An airline should be run like a business with strict checks and balances, and in current situation how can a regulatory authority like CAA and an airline like PIA can be under MOD, it's beyond understanding. PIA should be privatised with complete ban on Unions to produce better results. Secondly, the man-power should under go rigourous performance evaluations and shoult be reduced in phases to compete with the world class airlines. Cheers and Regards Farrukh
Ramez Dec 09, 2012 03:30am
Free tickets.Yes,u only get to travel if seats are available or u gotta to tavel on jump seats...Free Medical..nearly every big corporation provides medical benefits to their employees and compare to them PIA's medical is a joke..and kind mention other free stuff
SBB Dec 08, 2012 12:24am
You sound like someone who flies PIA pretty regularly. This is the DG of the CAA telling you they need to improve. Not some aira gaira passenger. Come on man.
Monarchian Dec 08, 2012 12:36am
I agree with one contention that air routes come under MOD which is how you can protect you air space considering how volatile conditions are in Pakistan. But Yes, we need to slash unnecessary appointments, solely on the basis of political reasons and who are adding no output to the Organization, lot of money can be saved. Management should be independent but be supervised by higher authorities. When US can bail out its whole Financial Sector, we can too bail it out and try to put it on right track. All the losses should be absorbed by raising equity and let it start afresh and hopefully it will regain its momentum. Why we all people whine all the time, come up with the solutions rather than proposing shutting down everything. Think positive and make some difference rather than representing the flock of whiners Long Live Pakistan.
Adil Jadoon Dec 08, 2012 01:34am
PIA is a mess. i will not travel via PIA unless they get their act together and behave like a professional entity. PIA buildings at Islamabad airport are covered with political posters which should have nothing to do with an airline. It is time for PIA to either get rid of all the "Jiyalas" and incompetent people at the helm or die.
Adil Jadoon Dec 08, 2012 01:36am
No you need to appoint some on with the record to run airlines efficiently, get rid of all the Jiyalas and base promotion, retainment on productivity. Take the Politics and the unions out of it.
Aminullah Chaudry Dec 08, 2012 06:13am
No I realise my limitations. Never taken a job after retirement. Quite satisfied. Do not want to mess up my remaining years.
Tanvir Dec 07, 2012 08:26pm
After reading the main article and comments, it seems that PIA is an utterly corrupt organization. It should be sold or leased to the commercial sector for running like a real for-profit and service provider business.
Ofk Dec 07, 2012 08:42pm
Foreign ownership (as stated in some comments) is not the only solution. Its good people running the show that matters. Take for example the time when PIA was under frmr. Air Marshal Nur Khan (and i think Asghar Khan before that), PIA was one of the best airlines of Asia. Latest aircraft, best & professional service. These people were from retd. Airforce, but they knew how to get the job done. I have seen advertisements in Western magazines dating from the 60s-70s, when PIA was the airlines to travel with in Asia. Unfortunately, like many institutions in pakistan, PIA was done in by the corrupt leaders/politicians, who made political appointees, rather then based on merit alone. The best solution would be to either declare bankruptcy, and to (sadly) lay off workers & renegotiate contracts from top to bottom hierarchy
Ofk Dec 07, 2012 07:32pm
Sorry, but Sri Lankan Airways was under Emirates, not Singapore....and this merger also broke down because the Emirates board did not like meddlesome behavior of the SriLankan Govt, which wanted to do what ever they wanted (i.e perks & privileges for govt. officials). At the same time a new management (foreign) means a lot of layoffs. At least half of the current employees would have to be fired. That is electorally impossible or very difficult at best. Plus all the privileges enjoyed by the corrupt elite will be gone. Thus in my opinion, out govt/MOD thinkers & bigwigs would not want this to happen.
Tribal Manto Dec 07, 2012 07:17pm
Eat your heart out 'Pakistan Inshallah Airline'. If you can't, i will.
junaid Dec 07, 2012 02:06pm
Look at Sri Lankan now and what it was before Singapore Airlines took it over. A take over is clearly the answer
sorry Dec 07, 2012 05:57pm
any1 chkd their pay structures ? ... only a wretched old man of late 40s can make upto 6 figures ... those are engineering professionals and waiting for a miracle to happen at govt.
junaid Dec 07, 2012 01:48pm
A clarification, yearly free confirmed tickets for all the family including kids upto 27 years of age on production of student certificate , unmarried/ widowed daughters even after the employee is retired, medical for parents too the list is endless
sorry Dec 07, 2012 05:54pm
Mr. Aminullah ... good article as a whole and right problems addressed... which shows your writing power ... but minus the NAWAZ era memo of all aircrafts at a stand stilll to boost up airblue ... and your ambitious comparison with the stated airlines ... see who are the ones heading their Regulatory bodies and who only in banana republics allow free skies to others .... while own pakistani airlines is for vote bank expansion by injecting party mates. ... MUsharaf era saw the right direction and non-political aims of PIA ... neither of you all were business men or patriot or technocrat ... and now we need them even more .... sorry sir, but please leave the torn pakistan to us ... let it breath ... we dont need your old thoughts and claims ... sorry
matin Dec 07, 2012 01:46pm
An example is Sri Lankan where Singapore Airlines took it over and now see how well they are doing
Ben Dec 07, 2012 01:39pm
Biggest problem for and of PIA is the political interference and affiliation in running it affairs.
Jamil Dec 07, 2012 09:32am
Lease out PIA with all its assets to a foreign airline for atleast 10 years with the commitment to modernise it. we will save billions of public money we are spending every now and than on so called bailout package.
Jamil Dec 07, 2012 09:23am
Mr Aminullah as an insider has very intelligently diagnosed the whole issue. PIA and CAA are two agencies responsible for aviation business. PIA get all the favours as they are in a position to oblige MOD and other government official with free airtickets and upgradations. Therefore, hardly any body can touch them.In CAA it is another story. Can anybody explain how the organisation can prosper when the DGs are being changed for the sake of facilitating certain individuals. Since March this year one DG was replaced with an idiot of a person and later he was thrown out for resisting some interference and the former DG reinstated. 3 DGs in 6 months. unbelieveable
meekal a ahmed Dec 07, 2012 09:04am
excellent analysis. But now what?Who will take up this daunting agenda?
SAL Dec 07, 2012 03:54pm
My suggestion is to fire all 'purchee wala appointees' they have no experience in aviation industry, keep only people with ten years or more on the job experience, hire presentable cabin crew which will have the best In-flight service to the passengers. Buy fuel on future trade and refuel Aircraft's from the Gulf at a cheaper price in exchange for more destination provided in Pakistan under 'open sky policy provided', purchase jet engines from GE as they are more economical and have low sound level which is acceptable in Europe and N. America. And, finally retain your maintenance staff before they fly off to the Gulf Airlines. PIA should have max 125 employee to Aircraft ration, and, then see how it flies.
Khan Dec 07, 2012 03:14pm
It is not simple to find out any one solution it has multiple problems and needs multiple solutions. PIA has remarkable history of fine performance from 1950s to 1970s. It is not right to blame army all responsible for the problems. During 50s and 70s period there were army people. They performed well as administrators and let professionals let their duties perform and hold back government interference. Not only PIA was making money for itself but also helped built other Airlines which includes Gulf, Emirates, Saudi, Malta and many other airlines. When political interference increased and political surge of appointments of staff by one after other new government going on the situation become bad to worst. Not only unnecessary increase in staff started inefficiency but become hindrance in professional discharge of existing staff and down fall of PIA.
raika45 Dec 07, 2012 12:24pm
No big enterprise run by government anywhere can make a success of it's self. Politicians or their vested interests which in this case is your defense ministry having no idea of open commercial interests will make a hash of things. Especially when the government is willing to pour millions for their inefficiency.This old socialist views where the government knows better are long gone.In most companies ,even public listed ones your retired army personal are either chairman or directors. Who in fact is running the country's economy and commerce? The armed forces or the people?
Ajilala Dec 07, 2012 02:32pm
To me he's looking for another chance.
observer Dec 07, 2012 03:30am
Good and thorough analysis of the situation. I wish such people speak up when they are serving at high positions. By the way, after Bhoja air crash I happened to watch a couple of Pakistani TV channels and heard CAA chief speak to media. Honestly, I wonder how such low intelligence people can make it to top level positions. Not only what he said was contrary to commonsense but he was obviously lying and trying to hide incompetence of his institution. Sad state of affairs. Very sad.
Sam Dec 07, 2012 04:07am
Free yearly tickets, free medical benefits and plenty of free stuff for PIA employees.PIA is a member of IATA.There are over 10,000 IATA member airlines worldwide but employer benefits provided by each airline completed depends upon their financial situation.Even in these hard times PIA is giving generous employee,free yearly tickets and free medical benefits.
Indian Dec 07, 2012 02:19pm
Air India has 1000 per aircraft the Govt of India is still pumping money into it!! Come on PIA you are doing better.
mukhtar Dec 07, 2012 04:47am
The writer has given an excellent account of events that led to the down fall of the PIA.Has given good suggestions but who will implement? Ministry of Defense is the biggest bottle neck and solely responsible for the mess we find in PIA and CAA CAA is a commercial authority but it has been turned in to a small airforce out fit where you find fleet of retired and serving officers who come for 3 years and go away.In fact DG, Dy DG and all directors should be from the regular cadre of civil aviation authority. There is immediate need to establish Aviation Ministry to take care of the PIA and CAA affairs.As a matter of policy no armed forces officers should be posted in PIA and CAA, it should be left to professionals. A well written article with lessons to be learnt
Circumbulator Dec 07, 2012 05:28am
Unfortunately everyone has an answer after the fact. What was he doing while DG CAA? Probably the same as everyone else, brown nosing to keep his job.