PIA: To Fly or Not to Fly

As if the financial woes afflicting the National Flag Carrier, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), were not enough the airline has in recent months been beset by some serious infringements. For any airline such events would have been a serious reputational challenge, but like most other critical factors, reputation appears to be an irrelevant concept in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It is a fact that PIA has been bleeding to death for many years; and, successive governments have made the condition of this apparently terminally ill patient worse while squandering billions on its ‘pretend’ rehabilitation. On top of it the airline has been repeatedly plagued by misuse and scandals. In all this, no government has ever made a decent and sincere effort to revive the fortunes of this potentially commercially viable venture.

It is a fact that PIA has some excellent routes and connections. It is also a fact that there are millions of overseas Pakistanis who would prefer to fly the national carrier due to the availability of direct flights from most countries to Pakistan. Yet, as result of resolvable inefficiencies and a lack of will the airline is dying a slow and painful death. Over the year’s billions have been spent on consultants and foreign CEO’s to right a problem that has a very simple solution – Independent Professional Management and no government intervention. Seems like that is a far-fetched idea and one that no one with vested interests is able to implement. There have been a plethora of rumours around the proposed privatization of PIA, which link some of the most influential and politically powerful elements in the country to potentially underhand or forced deals. Clearly a conflict of interest situation, which unfortunately is also an alien concept in Pakistan.

It was no surprise that after the recent scandals of the German CEO being involved in dubious deals; drug trafficking to the United Kingdom; the sleeping pilot; and, the Chinese passenger in the flight cockpit, that the Aviation Minister suddenly woke up from a deep slumber and suggested that the beleaguered airline be declared bankrupt and shut down. I would have imagined that he should have resigned from his post rather than shifting the responsibility and proposing the shut-down of the national flag carrier.

His three recommendations were nothing new: Let the national flag carrier run the way it is – operating in loss; declare it bankrupt and shut it down; or, restructure it. The government has already shut-down the Pakistan Steel Mills, most of the other State Owned Enterprises are in no better condition than PIA and are costing the tax payers an arm and a length. Perhaps, the government should shut them all and create unemployment on a scale never witnessed before. Instead of running away from the problem the government should be restructuring these near monopolistic ventures to be revenue generating enterprises. PIA is no exception, it can be restructured within months and its fortunes revived, if the government wanted to achieve that objective. When the national flag carrier is used by the Head of State as a free Chartered Airline, one can clearly assess where things are headed. It’s all mere lip service by those with vested interests, who are circling the dying airline waiting for it to be still and then pouncing on it. This mind-set was starkly evident in the death of the faithful elephant Suzi, who spent three decades of her life at the Lahore Zoo. She died and it was heart-wrenching to see her body being torn apart unceremoniously by the very people she depended on.

The Aviation Minister referred to the fact that PIA lacks discipline, top-quality management, ethical and professional officers and a “sense of ownership”. Who brought in the professional German CEO who took PIA for a ride. The fault Mr. Abbasi is not in PIA but in those responsible for ensuring its viability – namely the Government. How can an organization being run on the basis of nepotism and cronyism attract top talent or be independent? The solution is not to shut down the airline, the solution is for the concerned government departments to get their act together and restore PIA to its lost glory.

To date the Ministry has been unable to determine the events around the Pilot sleeping in Business Class during the flight. It has been suggested that the Pilot in the case of the Chinese woman in the cockpit incident had a history of sexually harassing his crew. Yet, nothing has come out of these investigations and many more unresolved investigations. This is not how professional businesses are run. PIA is a business and should be run like one, with accountability, transparency, and professional management. Not sure if those responsible for implementing these values are aware of the critical importance of these business values. Sadly, amidst all this wrangling and blame-shifting another potential national jewel continues to crumble. It was a success story, and it can be a success story again if the will is there.