Precariously Poised

Spearhead Opinion – 13.12.2016

By Farrukh Karamat
Senior Research Coordinator, Spearhead Research

pia-planeThe recent tragic crash of flight PK-661 highlighted the precipitous decline in the safety and service standards of the once proud national carrier. The loss of 48 lives in seemingly terrifying circumstances is extremely disturbing. In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, another one was narrowly avoided when an ATR flight was aborted after engine trouble. I for one stopped flying Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) in 2000, after witnessing their appalling service standards. My argument for doing so was simple – an airline that is unable to meet service standards, is perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy (the fact is that PIA is bankrupt), and is being managed by organized Mafias within it cannot be safe to fly. The safety standards must be compromised. If the washroom aboard the aircraft is not functioning, the seats are broken, and the TV monitors do not function, you can well imagine the state of the engines, structure, and landing gear. No matter how competent the crew, they cannot fly a piece of junk.

In a recently published news, PIA inducted 21 pilots on contract to fly ATR’s. All these pilots were above the mandatory retirement age. The airline then spent USD 26,000 for simulator based training in Bangkok. Out of the initial batch of six pilots, four failed the simulator test after receiving 15 days of intensive training. Over the years pilot errors, crew involved in smuggling activities, faulty aircraft and numerous other issues have come in the news and seem to be bogging down the national airline. Some years back when the EU banned flights of 747’s from Pakistan to Europe, our immediate reaction was that the world is against us. It might have helped to explore why this action was deemed necessary and what could we do about it. Safety of the aircraft was the primary issue at that time.

It has even been suggested in certain parts of the media that PIA is not conducting proper scheduled maintenance of their aircraft and are in violation of the manufacturer standards. If this is true, PIA management should be held accountable for manslaughter. They are actually playing with the lives of the innocent passengers.

PIA has some of the best international routes to the major cities of the world, with direct flights from Pakistan. There are ‘hordes’ of Pakistanis living in all those major cities, who would prefer to use PIA if it were up to the mark. Similarly the majority of Pakistanis travelling abroad would prefer to use PIA if it were deemed safe. In addition, it has excellent connections within Pakistan. With such lucrative availability of business, why cannot PIA make a profit and be run efficiently?

Perhaps the answer lies in the political intervention and nepotism that has plagued PIA. Had this airline been allowed to manage its own affairs with a professional management comprising people who understood the business and were allowed to run it as a business, PIA would have had a different destiny. The ingredients for an extremely successful venture were there, it’s just that contamination from outside led to the rancidity.

The Chairman of PIA in the immediate aftermath of the crash, in a press conference categorically stated that the aircraft was ‘technically sound’ and there was ‘no pilot error’. That leaves the possibility of a terrorist attack or an act of God. He has had to tender his resignation, but he cannot be absolved of the blame for the loss of innocent lives. It was under his watch that PIA continued to nose dive.

PIA is but a sad reflection of its once glorious past. Like a lot of other state institutions it has been rotting for a long time, bolstered by handouts from successive governments. It is not something that cannot be fixed and made viable again. It just requires the resolve, professional management, and technical competence – all of which are available but not allowed to function in this country. After all if an aircraft can be deputed for official duties to fly the leaders at their whims and fancies, in total disregard of the inconvenience and loss to the passengers and the organization, what improvement can one expect. Like everything else the policy of if it is broken leave it has to be replaced by if it is broken then fix it.

Tragedies such as PK-661 should not have happened and should not be allowed to happen again.