An inquiry into an airplane crash has turned into a nightmare for an already drowning airline.
It was supposed to be a commendable initiative.
Last month, the Pakistani government released a preliminary report into a crash in which 97 people were killed when a Pakistan International Airlines flight crashed on May 22 in the port city of Karachi.
Never before have authorities made its initial findings public so promptly. Families of the passengers who perished in previous air crashes had to wait years before learning what had really happened.
“Under the guidelines of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), they had to release some form of text within 30 days so people would know about the basic causes of the crash and how to make improvements,” Khawaja A Majeed, the former head of Pakistan’s air crash investigation board, tells TRT World.
“The FDR (Flight Data Recorder) and CVR (Cockpit Data Recorder) are very advanced these days. They give you a fairly good idea of what happened during the duration of the flight - what the pilots talked about, which switch they activated, details about the equaliser, the glide slope - it’s all there.”
But Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan dropped a bombshell when he presented the otherwise straightforward finding of the investigation in parliament on June 24.
More than 140 PIA pilots had not cleared their flying exams and their licenses were fake, he said. His comments were immediately picked up by international news organisations. Within days, the European Union and the United Kingdom banned PIA from flying to their airports.
PIA has been bleeding cash for years and survives on government bailouts. Suspension of flights to money-making routes, such as London Heathrow, will be a major blow.
A reckless approach
The PIA-operated Airbus 320 jetliner went down in a residential area minutes away from the airstrip. The investigation, in which the Pakistani civil aviation engineers were assisted by experts from the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus, found that the pilots repeatedly violated the aircontrol tower’s instructions.
The pilots, who were discussing coronavirus in the cockpit, had not deployed the landing gear during the plane’s first attempt to land. Its engines hit the runway floor, sending sparks off its surface. The plane took to the air again but its engines failed one by one and it crashed 1,340metres from the runway on its second approach to land.
“The problem with the PIA crash in Karachi which started all of this is not about basic flying skills - it was just extraordinarily reckless flying,” Geoffrey Thomas, the editor-in-chief of the Airline Ratings website, tells TRT World.
“Now if you are flying twice the height you are supposed to be at a particular approach to an airport, you don't dive the airplane down and increase the speed dramatically. You go around as the air traffic controller told you to do and you lose your altitude in a very orderly manner.”
Airline Ratings has downgraded PIA to a one star carrier, placing it among only half a dozen airlines which fare poorly on a scale that goes up to 7 stars. The website rates around 400 airlines.
“PIA has to revalidate all its pilots - I mean they have got a public relations disaster on their hands,” says Thomas.
Going forward, PIA would probably have to re-examine all its pilots, make them go through simulator training sessions and hire Airbus or Boeing pilots to oversee the process if it needs to win back the confidence of passengers, he says.
“PIA has been a really great airline in the past and this is a disaster for it.”
The making of a Pakistani pilot
Sarwar Khan, the aviation minister, faces criticism for bringing up the issue of pilots’ licence while debating the air crash report - especially when the two pilots on the fateful PIA flight are not in the list of around 141 PIA pilots accused of having fake credentials.
The government is yet to release the entire details of the ‘fake license’ scandal, says Tariq Abul Hasan, a Karachi-based journalist, who has covered aviation for more than two decades.
“This entire issue of the pilots has been handled in a very irresponsible way. It seems to have been done to attack the performance of past governments. Without any investigation or inquiry, they came up with a list. Now they are scrambling to find evidence.”
In many instances, the allegations against the pilots are based on shaky ground. For example, authorities asked how a pilot could have possibly appeared in an exam on the same day he operates a flight.
“It’s entirely possible for a pilot to appear in a test in the morning and then fly a plane in the evening,” says Hasan. “These issues around the pilots are not new; this has been going on for two years and some of them are in litigation.”
Like other airlines, PIA has a rigorous training mechanism for its pilots with multiple stages of tests that include simulator exams and interviews.
Pakistan’s national carrier even follows an old seniority-based system where a new pilot starts from the smallest plane and makes his way up over the years as more senior pilots retire.
In PIA, a first officer initially flies an ATR turboprop, then moves onto A320 and then finally a Boeing 777 jet. “But when it's time to become a captain, a first officer doesn't get promoted as captain of a 777. He comes all the way down to captain an ATR,” a former PIA pilot tells TRT World.
“The flipside of this system is that it’s very expensive. But the benefit is that by the time a PIA first officer becomes a captain, he’s pretty experienced and has accumulated a lot of flying hours.”
People who have observed Pakistan’s civil aviation sector, say that the investigations against dozens of PIA pilots is bound to weaken their union - the Pakistan Airline Pilots’ Association (PALPA).
The pilots’ union has been at the centre of all the major strikes and labour conflicts for the past decade. In 2011, hundreds of PIA flights were cancelled after employees led by PALPA’s then-president, Sohail Baluch, laid siege at the airport in protest against a code-sharing agreement with Turkish Airlines.
In 2016, during protests against PIA’s proposed privatisation, PALPA was once again on the front line during demonstrations in which two employees were shot dead by paramilitary soldiers.
Over the years, the government has put curbs on other unions. Now that even the pilots are facing restrictions, it is unlikely the management and Islamabad will face the same resistance to reforms, including PIA’s possible privatisation.