Fasten your seat belts -Masood Hasan

I believe that deep down all Pakistanis wish PIA to succeed, rise to become the airline it set out to be — a truly national airline that brings pride to the country and its people. I believe deep down, people don’t have anything but fond hopes for the airline’s revival — anything to make it pull out of its current death plunge. But wishes are not horses and so PIA lurches on from crisis to crisis.
For many Pakistanis, PIA represents home. Particularly those living and working abroad see a journey on the airline as a kind of homecoming, an emotion that the late and much missed Omar Kureishi, PIA’s Public Affairs head, was quick to spot years back, an emotion that he used nicely in a PIA campaign long ago. But pigs don’t have wings and just affection for the airline cannot avert its wretched state today. PIA has suffered as much with flawed policies as it has with the wrong choice of leaders. Like Pakistan, which it resembles so closely, PIA has had tons of potential but very little to show for it. Instead, constant interference and short-self-gain-promotion policies have damaged PIA over and over again.

Dour-faced staff at airports and, worse, in the planes, rude, indifferent and unhelpful, have not helped PIA’s cause. Instead of smiles, happy travellers have encountered scowls; instead of service a gross indifference to basic courtesies. As and when someone in PIA has shown some small kindness, some consideration for weary travellers, the rewards have been enormous, the goodwill more tangible than generated by diaries and calendars. Most passengers deep down are a little nervous, a little tense at the prospect of flying and anxious to get safely to their chosen destinations. An airline can play a wonderful role in such a scenario, but it has successfully made more enemies than friends through such experiences. A smile, which actually costs nothing, remains a task that is seemingly beyond most PIA crew. And yet there are hundreds of PIA people who are kind, flexible and professionally competent.

It is not one’s intention to sit here and do an elaborate analysis on what ails PIA and why is it in such a mess, literally gasping for breath with no sign of masks falling down automatically. There have been volumes written about the airline — its economic troubles, uncontrollable fuel costs, overstaffing, inefficiencies, intrigues and infighting, its battalions of slothful workers, thanks to political clout, its shady airplane deals, illegal commissions, award of undeserving contracts, its aging fleet, its uneconomical and creaking planes, its declining standards in every area, its exploitation by hordes of bureaucrats, ministry officials and a multitude of freeloaders who sponge off the airline’s meagre and dwindling resources. No, enough has been written about all these. PIA is like cricket, part of our national psyche, and when it fails, it brings out the venom and frustration of millions who lament the demise of one more institution.

I am among the many who have written scathingly about PIA and its long and unending line of chairmen and managing directors who have filed in and filed out in unending processions, the kind you see when Pakistan lose six wickets to amateur players from Hong Kong. Just a cursory scanning of the papers over the last 18 months reads like a list out of a doomsday manual. In December 2006, the president of Pakistan was parachuting in trying to save the national carrier from going belly up. While the suave but utterly incompetent Mr Kirmani, as per the already prepared script, parroted denials and termed projected losses as figments of the imagination of those with “vested” interests, the truth was staring everyone in the face. It didn’t stop him from pocketing a hefty salary for the next three years, as reports suggested at that time, or blowing a wad of hard-earned currency on fancy offices that may have tickled his ego but did damn all for the struggling airline. The Public Accounts Committee seemed to find nothing but skeletons in PIA’s cupboards. At that time the Multan Fokker crash enquiry was still nowhere in sight, there were disturbing reports of figures fudging, the sacking of 78 employees and the replacement of 45 Pakistani airhostesses with foreign ones at a salary of $50,000 per month!

When the EU banned PIA flights in Europe in 2007, further compounding PIA’s economic woes, the PIA management chose to misrepresent facts and came out with the most bizarre theories why they had been picked upon. Instead of addressing the issues, cosmetic changes were planned by a woolly-headed chief supported by the usual gang of sycophants singing anthems of praise. The plane tails were exotically done up, as if that was going to impress anyone — British Airways had gone that route and abandoned it years ago. This asinine behaviour exhibited at the very top by heads ill qualified to run the airline only put the airline back and added speed to its swift decline. Between 1999 and early 2008 the airline had gone through five CEOs, each one leaving more debris behind. Its use as a dumping ground for all “sifarshis” that began in the 70s had made it one of the world’s premier top heavy airlines. A workforce (“work” in its most loose sense) of over 18,000 employees running 43 aircraft meant 582 employees per aircraft, probably a world record. As of the first quarter of 2008, losses were Rs5.5 billion and accumulated losses Rs42.4 billion — with debt servicing at Rs15.5 billion!

These are dire straits and survival seems exceedingly hard. The fall of PIA is the result of numerous follies and excesses committed over the years by the topmost leaders of this country who have shamelessly misused this national airline as their personal handmaiden — hang your heads in shame, Mr Gilani, the 60-strong Umrah junket just a few weeks back, Mr Soomro’s royal pilgrimage that set PIA back $2.8 million and the cavalier fashion in which the likes of President Musharraf and ex-prime minister Shaukat Aziz, who thought nothing of flying all over the world without paying a dime, the Legharis, the Chaudhrys, the Bhuttos, the Sharifs, the Zia-ul-Haqs and their minions, the long, long lines of petty bureaucrats who jumped on wherever a PIA flight was going, without paying a cent, the chiefs, the despicable VVIPs who have bled PIA to death, the governments of the provinces, the semi-autonomous corporations, the freeloaders, their lordships, the lords of the Ministry of Defence and CAA who believe they own the airline — all these and more have reduced PIA to a farce.

After a long time, the new MD of PIA, Capt Haroon Ijaz, seems to be the right person. He has made a commendable start, has revamped the dead 747s, cut down costs, got rid of overpriced contractual leeches and set into motion policies that aim to make PIA break even by 2010. He is an airline man of 30 years standing and feels pain seeing PIA going down. In him we may finally have found the right person, but will the destructive forces that now run this land allow him a free hand? That remains to be seen. If he is checkmated at every turn, it will be another false dawn, another failed messiah. Maybe Capt Haroon cannot deliver, but having chosen him, the meddlers must step aside. Is it hoping for a miracle that this will happen? You bet it is, but we all must understand that PIA does indeed need a miracle. Maybe this is the time for it. Then, again, maybe not.

The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email:

Source: The News, 29/6/2008


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