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Saturday, April 13, 2024

PIA PK 8303: The cost of incompetency

In the last 17 years alone, Pakistan has seen an alarming number of fatal air accidents. Hostile work culture and bureaucratic hierarchical issues are already a prevalent menace in our society, and this stands true more so in the realm of commercial aviation more than any other industry.

With most people fearful of flying in a pressurized aluminium tube, it comes as no surprise that often this fear persists due to an overall lack of understanding and appreciation of flight. Add to this the devastation, spontaneity and magnitude of trauma typically associated with airline crashes, and naturally, it does not help better the cause of aviation awareness. Despite aviation being the safest mode of transport, aviation accidents serve as reminders that both man and machine are fallible.

As an aviation enthusiast and frequent flier myself, I am of the belief that a country’s aviation industry is a reflection of that country’s national ethos and not road traffic behavior as some argue. In the wake of PK 8303 disaster, I observed that many friends and media personnel donned the hats of aviation experts; I reminded myself that this too would be forgotten like other accidents in the past. Because soon enough we will find something new to clamor about.

Read More: President asks PIA CEO to expedite compensation process for families of victims

Malpractices and CAA’s Incompetency

In the last 17 years alone, Pakistan has seen an alarming number of fatal air accidents. Unlike Western industrialized countries, air travel is still a luxury in Pakistan – neither central to the free movement of people nor to interstate commerce, the state of Pakistan’s aviation industry, is deplorable to say the least. Mind you, it is as if getting banned from European airspace, having our aircrews detained for intoxication and smuggling, or as if having the US cancel all non-stop service from Pakistan wasn’t enough.

To me, it seems we have stopped believing in science and data altogether. The fact that Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has failed to produce investigation reports for most of the recent crashes speaks volumes about our relationship with the scientific process. Indeed, our belief in faith-based coping mechanisms and rituals takes effect over due diligence, work ethic, and reason. In practice, the CAA seems to have adopted Shaheen Air’s custom of painting the words “feee amman Allah” (I leave you in God’s Custody) on their aeroplanes quite literally.

Failure to complete and make public crash investigation findings is no small travesty. For example, in America, even military aircraft crash reports are made public with sensitive parts redacted; if nothing more, at least it’s a way of ensuring accountability to taxpayers. The fact that PK 661’s report is still veiled behind this cloak of secrecy suggests something is amiss. And even now, in PK8303’s case, the blame and shame game has already begun with disinformation regarding the pilots’ actions.

Read More: PIA plane recorder found; will aid in investigation: Aviation Minister

Assumptions regarding Pakistan’s aviation sector

Granted that the investigation is far from complete, for a moment lets consider the following scenarios that have been circulating. The notion that Karachi Tower Control was probably understaffed at the time of the crash (maybe lacking manpower because it was time for Friday Prayers), or the revelation that the pilots were fasting – physiological effects of fasting include delayed reaction time – suggest that belief in religion, rituals and superstitions alone without deference to science can prove divisive. And this stands true more so in the realm of commercial aviation more than any other profession/ industry.

The question then arises, was the CAA nodding off on the job or was it waiting for the Federal Aviation Authority of the United States to hand over a study on the consequences of such peculiar faith-based practices on pilot fatigue and response time (it isn’t as if 99% of commercial pilots in the US and the UK are practicing Muslims!).

Whether it is the frequency of Minimum Equipment List (MEL) flight operations or our cavalier “sab chalta hai” (anything works) attitude instead of being sticklers for procedures and following protocols, the CAA has been MIA for a long time now. Hostile work culture and bureaucratic hierarchical issues are already a prevalent menace in our society; it suffices to say the CAA failed to implement better Crew Resource Management (CRM) practices industry-wide despite the findings of AirBlue 202 (considering how prima facie evidence points towards an unstable approach for PK 8303 as well).

CAA’s lack of accountability falls on the masses

The problem in our country is that no one dares to question those in charge of our state institutions. As a result, political and military cronies in charge of the CAA have operated with total and complete immunity for far too long. The CAA has failed to perform even the most fundamental of its responsibilities. Its failure to regulate the industry, the profession, and the personnel is no secret. Hiring and shielding fake degree holders and poor safety regulation among other things, is par for the course for the CAA.

Undeniably, all this doesn’t leave much room for us to disagree with Western commentators that we really are a crisis-ridden country.

Only the official investigation will reveal the true reasons for the crash however, one thing is certain: short of disastrous mechanical failures, aeroplane crashes often assume the Swiss cheese model of accident causation. Consequently, the failures of Pakistan’s aviation industry primarily boil down to the leadership failure of the CAA and the airlines’ corporate management. And because people from among us become leaders, it is safe to say, we – collectively and individually – failed the passengers and crew of PK 8303.

Calling someone “Shaheed” (martyr) is never a substitute for competent leadership!

Read More: PIA plane crash: How to cope with a national tragedy

Fahd Nazir holds a Juris Doctor from the University of Arizona and an LLB from the UK. He has done substantial research on deregulation in the aviation industry. Writer lives in Phoenix, AZ and can be reached on Twitter @nazirfahd. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.