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Thursday, February 15, 2024

The rise and fall of PIA; Has Imran Khan taken the right step?

Following is the tale of how Pakistan International Airlines went from being an asset for Pakistan to becoming a severe financial liability. Read more to learn what went wrong.

The following is the tale of how Pakistan International Airlines or PIA, a pioneer in the world of aviation, went from being a valuable asset for Pakistan to becoming nothing more than a scrapyard of the industry; the rot can wholly be attributed to political interference and a lack of professionalism.

The golden era started soon after independence 

Mirza Ahmad Isphahani, a businessman from Chittagong, Bangladesh was the founder of Orient Airways. He was asked by Muhammad Ali Jinnah to convert the Orient Airways into a state carrier. Hence, PIA was founded under Quaid-e-Azam’s initiative, and Mirza Isphahani became the first Chairman of PIA. This was a project that started in 1946, a year before the genesis of Pakistan.

Jinnah’s talent for anticipation and prescience was so vast that he felt the need for an airline for a separate country even when Pakistan itself had not become a reality. In the start, PIA was revered to an extent unimaginable nowadays. That reverence and respect was earned by the tireless effort of the PIA team. An example was Abdullah Baig, a pilot at PIA, who set a new world record for the fastest flight from London to Karachi which was clocked at an astounding of 6 hours and 43 minutes.

Read more: PIA flying blind as fake license scandal slaughters repute

PIA was also the sole non-communist airline of its time that was allowed to freely fly in the communist airspace of China. Via Russia, PIA also catered to people in Europe and Asia. PIA was the pioneer of introducing ‘inflight entertainment’ in an airplane; this shows how PIA really set the standards for modern-day airlines.

Only Pakistan International Airlines can be credited for helping Pakistan’s culture spread, across international borders, to areas far and remote.

Things start to take a bad turn at PIA

It was not long before the legacy of the airline king went toppling down. The situation got so worse that Pakistan started to incur losses worth a Rs. 100 million on a daily basis – accounting for a yearly loss of around Rs. 36 billion.

Although PIA is plagued with many ills yet the most appalling one is the abnormally high employment rate which surmounts 15000 permanent employees and an additional 4000 workers on daily wages.

In these tough times of lockdown and uncertainty, when airlines in economically stable and first world countries like Air Canada are firing around 20000 employees on an average, there is Pakistan – a third world country – whose national airline has fired none.

At one time PIA used to have around 64 airplanes; now that number has reduced to 30-32 and even within these there are some that are grounded.

Read more: 150 pilots at PIA have dubious licenses: Aviation Minister

PIA’s performance has been so poor over the years that the deficit in 2008, that was around Rs.72 billion, mushroomed to Rs. 360 billion in 2017. Even in an economic backwater, PIA still went on to hire 4700 more employees this past decade.

The current situation can not be summarized better and more ironically then Miftah Ismail’s statement that “We cannot restructure PIA.” Moreover, he said, “Buy PIA, get steel mills for free”. I just can’t stop thinking that if they couldn’t restructure PIA then why hire thousands of people? This shows how the famed airline has transgressed into a junkyard of scrap metal.

Competition in the skies leaves PIA worse off

Perhaps, the reason behind PIA’s failure was the open sky policy, which allowed international airlines to fly to any airport in Pakistan. Over the years, statistically speaking, it has been proven that the open sky policy was never been successful.

Even our neighbor, India, has a limited open skies policy which means that foreign airlines can not use all the airports of India and can operate from only a few of them. Similarly in Turkey, foreign airlines can only operate in big cities and main airports like Ankara and Istanbul. If one wishes to travel elsewhere within the country such as Trabzon, Antalya, Konya they have to use local airlines.

Read more: PIA plane crash report: human error was the reason for crash

On the contrary, cities all over Pakistan like Peshawar, Quetta, Sialkot, Faisalabad, Lahore and Karachi, Multan host landings of airplanes from international airlines. One must realize that completely closing down the open-skies policy would not be the economically correct thing to do since either as this could incur major losses to the exchequer. The proper solution would be to limit the policy only to a few larger cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar.

Political interference is wholly responsible for the decay

The economic deficit faced by PIA is not because it doesn’t get enough passengers but part of the blame also lies within how the PIA utilizes its finances; the airline is cashing out very high salaries to its employees. It has become dysfunctional and even if the number of employees is reduced to half, it would still be more than enough for the institution to operate.

PIA is also one of those national organizations where nepotism has been at its peak signaling the once admired international airline to now be no more than an ‘old boy network’ and a global embarrassment.

Read more: Turkey to investigate PIA plane crash

This was pointed out in a recent sitting in the National Assembly when the Aviation Minister, Ghulam Sarwar made the air crash report public and announced that around 40 percent of PIA’s pilots have dubious licenses.

The scope of political interference within PIA is evident. Once PIA needed model-727 planes, at the last minute a shady deal was made with England, one that brought in airliners that were not needed. They later had to be sold. This is one of many mind-boggling stories of how an institution’s policy was influenced from the outside.

Then there was also a time when we imported a German CEO for PIA, named Bernd Hildenbrand. He made history, but rather in a negative manner. In 2017 debate began at floor of the house about an airplane that had gone missing. It was rather ironic to think that an airplane could vanish in thin air. It was later revealed that the airplane had been chartered to a British company that had taken it to Germany via Malta.

There in Germany the plane was grounded. However, the PIA administration was adamant about the fact that the plane could actually fly because according to them the plane was already grounded in Pakistan.

Read more: How can PIA be reformed to bring down losses?

If we look back on this incident, the mind gets flooded with questions – if the plane was not fit to fly then how did it take off? Who was actually responsible for allowing it to fly after being grounded? Who made money through this huge scam? The whole blame was ultimately placed on the German CEO and he subsequently ended up on the exit-control list under the charges of corruption.

History repeated itself and yet another accused placed on ECL escaped the country. According to the FIA, it was later found out that the plane was sold for 45,000 euros whereas its book value was $3.1 million.


PIA also has the distinction of having notoriously unhealthy pilots whose mental health was declared unfit by PIA. Yet upon the order of Sindh high court, the pilot had to be reinstated.

A storm of criticism ensued in the country when the Aviation Minister, Ghulam Sarwar, announced around 40 percent of the pilots had dubious licenses.

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

People argued that the government had tarnished the airline’s reputation by making such a statement on floor of the house but turned a blind eye to the fact that all of the pilots with suspicious or dubious licenses were grounded until further investigation. This isn’t the first time, but even in December 2018 and January 2019, pilots were grounded based on similar investigations.

The announcement about dubious licenses is just the tip of the iceberg.

Negligent staff involved in smuggling and carelessness

Those criticising the Minister Ghulam Sarwar for being morally correct here, here is a reminder from the past for them. These are a few headlines regarding PIA from the past.

  • PIA flight attendant caught smuggling gold from Lahore Airport
  • PIA Smuggling problem deepens as three crew members detained in the UK
  • PIA flight attendant held in Paris for heroin smuggling
  • Drunk PIA pilot jailed for nine months in the UK
  • PIA pilot sleeps during an international flight, leaving trainee to handle aircraft

(To access the articles for the above pointers, click on the word in the headline with the blue font)

These headlines explain how PIA’s crew has been operating at the behest of political-smuggling nexus at the expense of taxpayers.

If the statement of Mr. Ghulam Sarwar announcing about 40% of pilots having dubious licenses besmirched the airline’s reputation, then doesn’t the step of grounding them all restore the confidence of the world in PIA? Does this not mean that Pakistan will not put anyone’s life in danger? This is for you to decide.

The writer has also shared her thoughts in the following video:

The author is a TV presenter & producer with Hum News. She is an International Alumni Ambassador for Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, where she studied Multimedia Journalism. Earlier, she graduated with business and marketing at Air University, Islamabad. Shiffa could be followed on twitter @Shiffa_ZY and on Facebook @ShiffaYousafzai. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.