Pakistan’s Ailing National Airline

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Pakistan’s Ailing National Airline

After years of neglect, could privatization finally rescue Pakistan International Airlines?

Pakistan’s Ailing National Airline
Credit: Anti-privatization protest via Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com

“On long flights, sometimes the entertainment is switched off and not working. The movies options would remain the same for six months,” says Asif Hayat, former flight engineer of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). “Club class baggage, which should be the first to appear on the belt, is sometimes the last to appear.”

Hayat spent over thirty years with Pakistan’s national airline carrier. What was once a respected airline, is now in crisis. It is overstaffed, in debt, has an aging fleet, and is often plagued with reports of corruption.

Hayat calls attention to the deteriorating services at the most rudimentary level. At the highest level, the airline has been plagued by corruption. Both have been contributing factors for the airline’s abysmal state.

Under the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement, PIA is to be privatized. The proposed privatization however, is fiercely opposed by the workers of the airline, who fear widespread layoffs. (As The Nation observes, PIA employs more than three times as many staff per flight than the average international airline.) In early February, PIA workers staged a countrywide strike. They threatened to suspend flight operations and demanded the government reverse its decision to proceed with the privatization. Two PIA workers were killed during the strike in a clash with law enforcement personnel in Karachi, resulting in the resignation of the airline’s chairman. The government meanwhile declared the strike illegal and forced airline management to fire some of those involved.

Hayat says the airline has been in decline since the 1980s. “The total number of passengers traveling annually on PIA was 500,000 in 2005. That number has still not increased.” He added that the number of flights from Pakistan to New York has decreased over the years, even as the number of those traveling internationally has increased. Travelers are now able to opt for Emirates and Etihad, which fly to the United States via United Arab Emirates.

Hayat adds that even when it comes to passengers’ food, standards have declined. “Earlier, food would be picked up from different stations for long flights. But now it is sent from Pakistan. So if there’s a flight going to London and coming back, the food would have been traveling from Pakistan also.” He says that with all the problems faced by travelers, it is the cabin crew that bears the brunt.

In the 69 years since Independence, Pakistan has experienced a multitude of political changes and upheavals, and with each change of government, a new chairman of the PIA would be appointed. “Most of these appointees knew nothing about aviation,” says Hayat. “Once a person is chairman of PIA for six months, he gets free tickets for life for himself and his family. If you look at the history, not many chairmen lasted more than seven to nine months once they were confirmed.”

Pakistani governments have often been accused of not letting the PIA’s board of directors exercise complete authority without political interference. The handpicked board would often lack aviation experience as well.

“Autonomy to manage is important. If the management wants to purchase new planes, it should be able to do so without any interference,” says S Akbar Zaidi, an economic analyst. “The government has no interest in keeping PIA. There is no nationalistic commitment.”

Zaidi adds that it really doesn’t matter who owns the airline. “Privatization may work, it may not. PIA can be fixed so that it makes profits. But if you can make it profitable while in state, then why sell it at all?”

Currently, the government subsidizes fares for certain routes that are unprofitable. Some of those include the Mekran coast (a semi-desert coastal strip in Balochistan), Gilgit and Skardu.

Zaidi says that one drawback of privatization is that a private airline would have no interest in going to routes that are not profitable. “Private companies will solely look at profits and would take away access and subsidies.”

Zaidi stressed the need for an effective management to take over and then see the results of the airline’s performance. This conformed to Sheikh Majeed’s view regarding the need for an honest, capable management.

Majeed, a member of the PIA Joint Action Committee says, “We gave a list of 23 points to Shahbaz Sharif (Chief Minister of Punjab). We asked for a professional management and to see how we perform under it for one year and then make a decision.”

Majeed has been part of the protests against the privatization law. The PIA Joint Action Committee had decided to keep flights grounded and offices closed until those behind the killing of the airline’s two employees are arrested. The government responded by sacking employees who were behind the strikes.

“We have about 8000 people in the union and have lost two people during the protests and several are still injured,” says Majeed. And while government officials have regarded overstaffing as one of the main factors for PIA’s financial woes, Majeed offers a counterargument.

“PIA spends 16 percent of its revenue on employee wages. If you compare it with American Airlines or other big airlines, they spend about 38 percent on staff salaries. So being overstaffed is not an issue,” says Majeed.

The ruling opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has strongly resisted the federal government’s proposed privatization, demanding an audit of PIA’s performance over the last 10 years. PPP is staunchly opposed to selling national assets to the private sector.

In early March, Pakistan’s Senate rejected the government’s proposal to convert Pakistan International Airlines Corporation into a limited company. The bill will now go before a joint session of parliament, where the government enjoys a simple majority and so is likely to be able to pass the legislation.

With resistance by several airline unions and opposition parties, the IMF’s demands, regular passenger complaints, intermittent disruption of flight operations, and the government’s lack of interest in bringing a reform in policy and management, there is little to dispute that Pakistan’s national airline is in urgent need of a transformation.

Mina Sohail is a multimedia journalist based in Karachi.