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Dateline Islamabad: Arrival of three wise men

March 31, 2013

Why not three wise women? Pakistan International Airline continues to be the preserve of men. Where are the women? Mostly, passengers travelling in business plus are  the lucky recipients of service by pretty, petite and polite air stewardesses. But for the rest travelling economy, only stewards serve.

Gender equality is not visible in PIA. Women have yet to pierce the glass ceiling to reach decision-making level. And yet women know better than men how to make flying PIA an experience worth repeating. Top class food, service, hygiene, environment and inflight entertainment does not cost the moon. All it requires is a team of women and men with aesthetic sense.

A front-page news item in an English daily headlined ‘Three serving military officials appointed in PIA’ leaves one to conclude that PIA fat cats drawing prodigious salaries and perks are morons, therefore military men have to be called in. Quoting PIA sources, “Brigadier Hamid Usman, Colonel Atif Dar and Wing Commander Zulfiqar will constitute a task force and will remain appointed in PIA for three months. They will not draw any salary from the airline.”

The three uniformed men will zero in on PIA’s human resources. Their mandate is to prepare a ‘report’ for the defence ministry. Obviously, they will dig deep and perhaps pull out some dead donkeys in the wells of corruption. But are they experts in human resources? What’s their track record? More importantly, is this just one more exercise in futility or does the defence ministry mean business this time around?

Successful corporations around the world give high priority to the training of their personnel. It’s people at every level of an organisation who are the drivers of business. Hiring the right people for the right job is the responsibility of the human resource department, headed by someone qualified for the role. What if the head is a sifarshi himself? What if he is routinely involved in sexual harassment? What if he is mediocre, corrupt and unfit for the job?

Travelling last month from New York to Lahore on PIA in economy class was an affair to remember. “Never again”, I vowed. “Pay a little extra but fly a decent airline.” Dirt, decay and rot greeted one. The seats were threadbare, the folding trays had decayed food stuck on them, the carpet everywhere had grime and was worn-out, the shutters on the window didn’t work, the overhead lights never came on and one consequently stared in the dark with the book carried to read sitting idle in my lap throughout the 13-hour journey. “The lights will come on,” said the steward. What else could the poor fellow say, knowing full well that this aircraft had covered several trans-Atlantic flights with a dead overhead electrical system.

PIA’s inflight food was once the main attraction for passengers like us. Forget it! Apart from a smaller serving size, the biryani was cold, tasteless and tired. The chicken boti was definitely aged. The snacks served were equally unappetising. Obviously, whoever in PIA gave the contract for the supply of food pocketed money, while we the passengers ended up shoving down cold, old and cut-rate stuff down our throats.

The service in the economy is chaloo. Rarely did one see a steward walk down the aisle except at mealtimes when he would push a food tray your way without a word or a smile. I happen to catch the one serving us standing at the help counter on our arrival at Lahore airport. The young handsome man showed more alacrity on ground than in the air. Would you like to give me your contact so that we can talk about PIA’s awful performance, I ask him. He smiles (the first time I see him smile) and writes down his name and his cell number. While we wait to board our onwards flight from Lahore to Islamabad, he volunteers to tell me the horror story that is PIA.

“I have been a steward for seven years. I have received minimal raise. Only 30% of PIA’s earnings are spent on the running of the airline and our salaries, the rest 70% vanishes into thin air,” he says. “Currently a contractor in the Middle East has sued PIA for illegal termination of his contract. The power houses sitting on the two hills of Islamabad decided to give the lucrative contract to their own favourite who must have paid them huge kickbacks. They don’t care if PIA is left to deal with a pricey lawsuit from the former contract.”

The steward is not hopeful of PIA’s revival. “Like the rest of the country, PIA ka khuda hafiz.” He does not intend hanging around to see the airline go under. “I have already a scholarship for MBA waiting for me in Australia.”

Will the three wise men charged to investigate PIA’s human resources consider approaching people like the steward for a frank, unvarnished feedback? Will they assure them of confidentiality, promising to keep their identities secret?

Some years ago, I met two people working for PIA at its New York office. Mirvat Omar, an Egyptian woman was full of angst against her employer. “I’ve been a ticketing agent ever since 1986. I moved over to PIA almost 23 years ago. They will not promote me nor will they sack me. I’m tired, frustrated and very angry, but if I resign today, I lose everything but if they fire me, PIA will have to pay all my dues.” I quoted these lines in my Dawn column of January 31, 2010. Mirvat was paid a minimum wage of $2,000 a month. Most of it went in her long commute out of New Jersey. “I’m a single mom and need to work to run my home.”

She is still the ticketing agent; still helping Pakistanis with their bookings whenever she’s at the sales counter which is now infrequent. She’s lost hope and a will to serve.

The ‘other’ PIA staffer I met that summer’s day in 2009 was station manager Ali Uddean Ahmad. He had recently been posted to the most difficult job of his career — dealing daily with Pakistani travellers like myself with all kinds of requests, some bizarre, some doable.

When I travelled last month and asked for Ali, I was informed he had been posted back to Karachi. On a promotion, I hope? I said to his successor. Ali, toting a walkie-talkie, the fleet footed, serious faced and brisk station manager was always present at JFK in New York for the tri-weekly arrival and departure of PIA flights to and from Pakistan. He was a hands down guy making sure his ground staff was equally expeditious in helping passengers.

Focused on his duty as though it was an investment, Ali Uddean Ahmad is a model for the three wise men exploring PIA’s human resources. Having spent 33 years perfecting application systems that ensure that flights take off and arrive on time at JFK, one of America’s busiest air terminal, Ali told me, “I have spent all my life in operations and have trained several PIA personnel. I am always available to sort out any issue that may arise — from baggage ramp to the passenger boarding and cargo airlifting.”

Many of us may not know, but according to Ali, PIA tops the list of airlines flying with the highest number of passengers to cargo ratio. “I am proud to say that in the past 11 months, PIA holds a record of taking off on time from JFK.”

But Ali is now back in Karachi. The three wise men will do well to tap him for expert advice on how to train and manage a team.

Merit bankruptcy aside, some PIA officers are morally bankrupt. Often, sexual harassment incidents never come to the surface. In the US, the first thing human resource department tells a new hire is to immediately report such occurrences because the company does not want to be embroiled in a costly lawsuit. According to press reports, PIA was slapped with a similar lawsuit when Pilot Captain Riffat Haye complained in the Lahore High Court that she and her female pilots were harassed by their male colleagues; discriminated against and treated shabbily. What was the conclusion of the story? Was the case withdrawn or offenders punished or not? Such stories are never followed up or chased to conclusion. The wise men must take up the issue of sexual harassment in earnest and not push it under the rug as is often the case.

Such damning allegations alone in America, if found true, can sink a ship.