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PIA’s great mess

December 07, 2012

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.

aminullahc@yahoo.com