WINDOW ON SOUTH ASIA

Published:  01:05 AM, 29 May 2020

PIA plane crash and pressure on Imran government

PIA plane crash and pressure on Imran government
 
In an unfortunate and a very devastating accident, an Airbus 320 aircraft belonging to the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) PK 303 crashed near the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi on May 22 killing nearly hundred people. Other than the casualties of the passengers on board, some are also believed to have died in the civilian locality, Jinnah gardens close to Model Town where the ill fated A320 fell minutes before landing. Providentially, there have been a few miraculous survivors too including the President of the Bank of Punjab, Zafar Masood.

The mishap is more shocking as it happened during the Eid ul Fitr festivity build up and also, when Pakistan like other nations, is battling to meet the challenges emanating from the deadly menace of Covid-19. The PIA pilot who steered the flight was known to be an experienced pilot with thousands of years of international experience, in his 50s and mostly flying on the Lahore - Dubai sector.

He was temporarily drafted for this Lahore- Karachi sector as the international flights remain suspended. While a full fledged enquiry is on investigate aimed at ascertaining details or failure leading to the crash, preliminary observations say that both the aircraft engines had given way compelling the pilot to give the distress call "May Day".

Initial enquiries also say that there was a hydraulic failure and the Air Traffic Control or the tower told the pilot to pull towards the left to a distance of 3000 feet but the pilot responded saying the plane was rapidly descending. The other plane crash which occurred before this accident was in December 2016, when a PIA flight of ATR 42 had crashed on way to Islamabad from Chitral claiming many lives. We see a poor track record of PIA in terms of aviation safety raising several unnerving questions for the fledgling and corruption ridden PIA to answer. Questions are also asked.

As it has always been in Pakistan's over seven decades of aviation history, the military invariably exercised a stranglehold over PIA not merely to call the shots but also to signal that it's the armed forces whose writ ran without any regard to improve the PIA functioning or to raise the efficiency. It would seem it was aimed to enjoy the maximum fringe benefits at the cost of tax payer's money.  And in consonance with such nefarious agenda, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) took over the PIA in 2019 causing huge heartburn amongst the PIA rank and file depriving them of their promotions and status but they couldn't do much because of the military's absolute control over the state of affairs. Air Marshal Arshad Khan of the PAF was made the Chairman.

In another related development, the Pakistani government accorded formal approval of posting of PAF officers into the PIA setup thus militarizing the national carrier and flagship compromising its efficacy and civilian flavor. The orders further elaborated that there would be 8 pilots for the PIA. Out of this 8, 4 will be from the PAF and 4 from the Pakistani Army. The rot had started setting in as the original professionals were distinctly ignored churning out resentment in the original cadres.

Further, Air Marshal Arshad Malik was made the CEO. Similarly, Air Vice Marshal Shobhan Nazir Syed Nazir became the Advisor, and Air Vice Marshal Noor Abbas another Advisor exclusively good advise the CEO. Other key PAF officers' appointments into the PIA included Air Commodore Jibran Saleem Butt assigned to oversee provisioning and logistics to serve upto January 2022, Air Commodore Jawad Zafar Chaudhury incharge of budgeting , Air Commodore Shahid Qader for oversight into food services with a formal term of three years lasting upto January 22, Wing Commander Hafiz Tahir Mehmood as Manager Projects and Wing Commander Mohammad Asim Khan with a term period upto 2022 to look after a crucial portfolio like HR. In addition to these, a junior Flight Lt Tahir Farooq was appointed as the AdC to the CEO. The message was loud and clear and the mission of the armed forces was complete with a perfect penetration into the PIA which led to considerable frustration in the PIA setup.

After the most recent Karachi crash, the PIA has now got its turn to articulate its outbursts giving vent to their pent up feeling and frustration. Representatives of the Pilots' association and aviation experts of the PIA have univocally expressed concern over the handling of the investigations by a PIA dominated probe team enquiring into the plane crash. Also, Capt Imran Narejo, Secretary of the PIA Pilots Association (PALPA) in a statement on May 23, openly challenged the aviation authorities alleging that the probe team was not balanced as it is bereft of adequate representation of the commercial pilots. Narejo's charge is not off the mark.

He has also alleged that there is no competent or rated pilot in the investigation team raising suspicions on its credibility. However, PIA CEO, Arshad Malik, was in an obvious defensive stance, has stated immediately after the crash that the doomed plane was airworthy. It's been seen as a panic prompted statement. People have already started demanding his resignation citing that in the aftermath of the 2016 PIA air crash killing 47 persons , the then PIA CEO had resigned.

Independent aviation experts, however, opine that Karachi bound PIA airbus was poorly maintained and had outlived its prime.

Experts say out of 8 PIA aircraft short listed  for upgradation, 3 are 16 year old, 2 of 14 years vintage, other 2, 14 years old and 1, more than 12 years old.  Experts are also quoting that Emirates, the internationally prominent airline regularly phase out its Boeing 777 in a regular manner to keep its aircraft airworthy. Why did PIA not adhere to the norms despite the heavy presence of PAF men at the helm?

They have also raised a question that why did the aircraft had a belated descent and whether it was the right decision of the pilot to commit to landing instead of going for an orbit despite the unusual altitude? These loopholes and grey areas are likely to appear clear only if a fair and professional probe is carried out. There is, as of now, a big question mark on the PAF dominated PIA amid allegations that the national carrier has a undesirable nexus with PTI (Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf) of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Meanwhile, social media in Pakistan is abuzz with PIA's failed leadership in allowing things to go adrift and things coming to such a pass that this crash was not averted. There are sparks flying against the PAF too for diluting professionalism and encouraging corruption in the PIA. In particular, Avionic Solutions Private Limited has come to the fore for a tainted reputation and suspicious and scandalous deals.

The owner of the company, Khwaja Moizuddin, is again a PAF man who retired as a Group Captain and floated this company with a capital share of only 100,000 rupees. He is believed to be a close friend of PIA CEO, Air Marshal Arshad Malik. At a tender floated in March last year, Avionic Solutions bagged a lucrative contract within two months of its launch.

Also, Singapore's AAR international corporation, which has a rich experience of 70 years in the particular field lost out the bid. Knowledgeable sources reckon that there was reasonable likelihood of granting favors to Avionic Solutions which has the backing of the mighty and powerful in the Pakistan set up. And this is more than visible in the absence of any transparency.

Incidentally, this Pakistani company has on its board Khwaja's wife and daughter (still a student). There are, therefore, traces of nepotism. PIA's credibility stands at an all time low particularly after the recent crash and more beans are likely to be spilled in the near future.

Ire now is also directed against the military for its forced dominance on independent and autonomous institutions and PIA is in the limelight now. Government and the military seem to be at a loss how to do the damage control as it has a huge face loss before the Eid and half hearted measures to address the corona menace.

In sum, the Government of the day, under Prime Minister Imran Khan, the entire military and the PAF in particular are under severe pressure by the media (both print and electronic), the aviation experts, critics of the government, political adversaries and civil society groups to hold the responsible into account for this PIA plane crash happening within less than four years in Pakistan (last one of 2016). Surely, PIA is a sick entity and over dominance of the PAF and their arbitrary attitude has dented its already declining 'credentials'. 

Unless the stark interference and dominance of the military is detached from the day to day functioning of the PIA, it will continue to be fraught with corruption and nepotism adversely affecting the competence and the capability of the national airline. Such negativities also have the propensity to make the air travel vulnerable. As it is, Pakistan is full of internal problems including terrorism, in this light, its incumbent on its part to be seen to be allaying fears amongst its people about air safety. Alas, no such measures are seen on the wall and the restive population is watching rather closely.

Imran Khan needs to deal this challenge on priority or else it will be as bad a headache as his problem to deal with terror concerns. Problem is the Pakistan Prime Minister is clueless on his ways as how to deal with an all powerful military. The Khaki is already deeply entrenched inside an elected government.

People with selective amnesia can forget the August 1988, C 130 Hercules plane crash near Bahawalpur claiming the life of military dictator and President Zia ul Haq. But if commoners start losing lives in the absence of any oversight or professionalism as in the Karachi air crash, Imran Khan will surely have a bumpy road ahead.


The writer is a security analyst and a free lance columnist on matters of topical interest. He was also the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. The views expressed are personal


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