Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has suffered a devastating blow that will be difficult to recover from any time sooner. On July 1, the European Air Safety Agency (EASA) issued a six-month ban on all PIA flights to Europe. The United Kingdom and the USA followed suit imposing a ban on all PIA flights. Meanwhile many international airlines worldwide have grounded Pakistani pilots. Here is why.
The current ban comes in the aftermath of an enquiry report regarding the crash of PIA flight 8303, operated by Airbus A320. The ill-fated Airbus crashed at Jinnah Garden near a densely populated residential area called Model Colony which is less than a mile away from the runway of Karachi International Airport. 97 lives were lost. An inquiry was put into action under the supervision of the Federal Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar. In its preliminary report, it was revealed that the pilots did not follow the standard procedures for landing and ignored all alarms. However, the revelation that shocked everyone was that 260 of 860 Pakistani pilots, including 141 PIA pilots, had never sat an exam for flying and that their licenses were fake.
Today, Vietnam has grounded all of the 27 Pakistani pilots flying their aircrafts due to concerns about their qualifications. All major airlines across the world have also begun to make Pakistani pilots redundant. Even the UK has decided to follow the EASA ban and barred any PIA flights to take off or land in the country. This is a big set back for the puppet government of Imran Khan which was installed after the army allegedly orchestrated his victory in the 2018 general elections.
PIA has suffered an accumulated loss of ₹425 billion since 2008. Last year PIA authorities asked the Federal government to write off its loan for which PIA has to pay ₹3 billion interest each year. Instead, the government of Pakistan came up with an ambitious revival plan according to which PIA was to procure 45 new air carriers and expand its travel destination to generate more revenue for the struggling concern. Up until March 2020 PIA was operating on 18 international routes. However, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, most of PIA flights to the Middle East were brought to a halt. Now with the EASA ban, Pakistan has lost at least 6 of its major routes. With no anticipation for PIA to resume its flights to the Middle East, Canada, Malaysia, and Thailand any time sooner, one can assume that the corporation has entered the final stage in its battle for survival. This means that further accumulation of debt has now become inevitable leaving PIA with only two options. The first option is to hastily privatise the corporation and get rid of it and the second option is to declare it bankrupt. The question is if PIA goes for sale who will be willing to foot an outstanding loan bill of ₹425 billion which the corporation owes to the federal government-owned banks? Hence if PIA is sold without the condition of adding the loans on top of the sale price than Federal government banks who have provided PIA with the loans in the past in the shape of cash, credit or deferred payments will also face the danger of going under. Hence in this scenario, the social, political and geographical catastrophe awaiting Pakistan’s economic demise now seems to be the writing on the wall.
If Imran Khan government has to fix the PIA predicament caused by the bad management of the corporation, recent EASA ban and accumulating debt then there might possibly be a third option as well. In the national budget passed less than a week ago by the national assembly of the country, the money set aside for the defence (read Pakistan Army) for the fiscal year 2020-21 is ₹1400 billion. In an extraordinary show of statesmanship, Imran Khan could dig into the defence budget and acquire money for the vulnerable PIA. Or, the military can chip in from its $100 billion annual business income and contribute to the PIA bailout package. But this will be a tricky situation. Imran Khan has proved that once in power he has ceased to be a statesman and instead, in return for being placed in the office of the Prime minister of the country, he has transformed himself into a spokesman of the Pakistan military establishment. Secondly, the Pakistan army is not an institution that would sacrifice its perks for a national cause, let alone donating billions of rupees for a dying corporation especially when the army have their own C130s and other aircraft carriers. Consequently, the demise of the corporation called PIA now seems inevitable. Nevertheless, no one had the ever anticipated that the final deathblow to the national flag carrier of Pakistan would come from the European Air Safety Agency.
(The writer is an author and a human rights activist from Mirpur in Pakistani occupied Jammu Kashmir. He currently lives in exile in the UK)