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The colour of money

December 23, 2012

PIA went into loss in 2004 and never looked back. There had been bad years in the past too, but by 2003 the airline had managed to pull itself out of the red for a brief period.

In subsequent years the scale of the losses only increased. The first loss was recorded at Rs4.4 billion, which almost tripled to just over Rs12bn the next year. Two years later, this amount tripled again to Rs36bn.

The first losses, in the year 2005, were announced in the annual report with these words: “the bottom line reveals a change of colour.” Either the directors had a sense of humour, or they thought the shareholders were fools. In any event, the reason given for this “change of colour” in the bottom line was the rising price of jet fuel, which left a dent of Rs7.8bn on the airline’s finances.

The next year, when losses tripled, so did the excuses. In the 2006 annual report, rising oil prices are again blamed for part of the losses, but a new reason was added to the list: competition from regional airlines and domestic carriers. The regional airlines had “below cost offerings”, and domestic private carriers “offered stiff competition as they were keen to gain a market share [sic]” according to the report.

Nowhere does it explain how the domestic carriers were able to operate at a profit in spite of the high fuel costs.

The year 2007 was no different. When losses had crossed Rs13bn, once again the annual report opened with the customary invocation of the year having been “an exceptionally difficult” one. Again the excuses started with the rising cost of fuel, and went on to include a ban on PIA flights imposed by the EU on 35 of the airline’s fleet of 42 planes, leaving only the seven new 777s with permission to fly to EU airports.

The fact that the ban was prompted by sagging maintenance standards was not mentioned. The report also added two additional reasons, “increases in pay to certain categories of personnel and depreciation of the rupee” to the traditional list.

In 2008, when the losses tripled again to cross Rs35bn, the reasons for the losses proliferated at a bewildering rate. Again the customary opening sentence about the year having been exceptionally difficult, was followed up by invocations such as “sub prime mortgage crisis”,  “soaring commodity prices”, “global recession”, “regional situation”, “growing fiscal deficit”, “widening of current account deficit”, depreciation of the rupee and tightening of interest rates.

A little further down, a large bold headline in an odd font and even odder greenish colour reads: “Rising in the face of adversity.” And after this slightly embarrassing display of bravado, come these priceless words: “Paradoxical as it may appear — given the record net loss of Rs35.88bn in 2008 — we have just about turned the corner at the end of this year.”

It’s true that PIA’s annual losses came down from the peak they hit in 2008, but it was certainly premature to say that the carrier had “turned the corner” since 2009 saw continued losses in the range of Rs13bn.

Another manifest change over the years is a growing effort to decorate the reports with large colour pictures with supposedly inspirational captions. So the 2008 report, where this decorative effort reaches full bloom, contains full page pictures of aircraft and people tending to them, with clumsy captions such as “breaking through the global financial standoff.”

My favourite such picture carries a caption that reads: “when the global downturn stumbles the world economy, we get our heads down to evaluate and implement”. The picture above the caption shows a steeply downward sloping graph, with a chap sitting at the foot of the graph holding his head in his hands in despair. Either he’s worried about the global economy, or they’ve lost his luggage.

And so the story goes, getting more and more absurd with each passing year. Today these losses have accumulated to a staggering figure of Rs119bn. And we have no explanation of how it is that other domestic carriers have grown throughout this period, or what happened to the additional revenues the airline generated from the hike in fares, which actually passed the rising cost of fuel to the passengers.

Ever since the carrier’s bottom line “revealed a change of colour”, it has shed most of its international routes, absorbed over a billion dollars of taxpayer money in bailouts, and failed to rectify its difficulties in maintaining its aircraft. It’s time to ask in all seriousness whether this behemoth is worth anyone’s while any longer.