The debate over whether a civilian or a military person is best suited to run the state-owned Pakistan International Airlines is over, at least for now: outgoing Air Force Chief Rao Qamar Suleman has taken over the reins as the new managing director of PIA.
The new MD confronts some daunting challenges, including an organisation that is haemorrhaging money, an aging fleet that faces increasing restrictions from the European Union and potential issues in dealing with the airline’s powerful unions.
It does not help that far too many in the industry are sceptical of Suleman’s military background. A few weeks before his appointment, when a military man taking over the MD position was just a rumour, the leaders of PIA’s various unions met to discuss the possibility. Many were distressed at the prospect and believed that a military man, with little or no experience in commercial aviation would not be able to handle PIA. The unions also feared that a military head might adopt an inflexible attitude towards a civilian workforce.
Military men have had a mixed record running the national airline. Air Marshal Nur Khan is widely remembered as having led the airline during its golden era. But others are remembered for their scandals. Air Marshal Viqar Azeem is remembered for selling four brand new DC-10-30s through Page Avjet in return for four of Canadian Pacific’s old Boeing 747-200 with an almost expired hull life, causing the airline a $20 million loss. Air Vice Marshal Niaz’s tenure was marred by reports that he allowed the purchase of substandard brake grease that cause the planes to catch fire when they landed at airports in the United States and Europe.
Yet despite these reports, the unions say they are ready to work the new MD on a plan to revitalise the national airline, though they added some caveats. “The unions are ready to work with the new MD, but a lot depends on his plans,” said Shaukat Jamshed, president of the Society of Aircraft Engineers of Pakistan, though he hastened to add that the unions expected to have a good working relationship with Suleman.
The PIA spokesperson also corroborated this account. “PIA associations have welcomed new MD on joining PIA,” said Sultan Hasan.
Perhaps ironically for an organisation that is often described as overstaffed, Jamshed said that “financial problems would remain the biggest challenge for the new management.”
The financial losses of PIA are indeed gigantic. The company has lost over Rs112 billion over the last five years. Its liabilities exceed its assets by Rs79 billion. During the first nine months of 2011, PIA had net losses of Rs19.3 billion, an increase of almost 74% over the same period in the previous year.
Most industry experts say it is pointless to inject billions in bailout money into the organisation without first overcoming its entrenched management and financial issues.
Part of the problem seems to be what industry experts describe as the non-serious attitude of the government towards aviation as a whole. They point to the example of the former MD of PIA being appointed to run the Civil Aviation Authority, which is a practise that is frowned upon in the world.
“It is not only illegal but also criminal to appoint a top official of airline in civil aviation,” said one expert, on the condition of anonymity. “Europeans who are already closely monitoring PIA will take notice of these violations and the country may eventually face all the problems if EU put expected restrictions on PIA.”
The PIA spokesperson, however, disagreed. “There is no talk of expected ban on PIA. And as far as monitoring of PIA in EU is concerned, civil aviation authorities in every country monitor aircrafts and it is not specific to only PIA,” Hasan said.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2012.