As relatives of 127 unfortunate souls who perished on board Bhoja Air flight B213 collect the mortal remains of their loved ones amidst cries of agony and despair, and the nation comes to terms with yet another tragedy, a number of painful questions will arise.
And after the questions, some hard facts will have to be swallowed, and actions taken.
Above all others will be questions not only about the organisation itself but also the authorities that regulate them.
What prompted CAA to grant Bhoja Air permission to resume operations in March 2012 after they had suspended all flight operations in 2001?
What cannot be ignored is the frequency of accidents and air crashes involving Pakistan registered aircraft, or foreign aircrafts within Pakistan airspace, such as the Russian Cargo aircraft that crashed in Karachi recently. Incidents such as these have risen sharply and point to serious flaws in regulatory controls and monitoring of airline operators.
It is not only us, but the world that is watching and listening. Pakistan’s aviation industry is already under strict monitoring by international regulators and authorities and may face censures that will sound its death knell.
There is no escaping from realising what needs to be done.
Concrete structural changes, not half-hearted superficial measures, must be incorporated to make CAA free from political interference and also to prevent it becoming a dumping ground for retired uniformed officers.
Commercial aviation is not a joke.
It is a highly-regulated service-oriented industry, which must work in accordance with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulations, aircraft manufacturer specifications, state of registry regulatory authority and regulatory controls of countries that airlines land in or overfly, while satisfying passenger requirements at competitive fare structures and maintain published schedules.
The smallest details matter, and must be recorded.
Air crashes occur when a combination of technical defects occur simultaneously accompanied with, or without, human pilot error and/or external natural phenomenon such as weather, or/and malfunction of ground navigation aids and air traffic control. ICAO requires its member countries to put in place an independent regulatory authority, free from political and administrative controls of the executive, having employed fully qualified experts with experience in all fields of aviation on the specific type of aircrafts that are flown by airline under their control.
How does our CAA measure up in this regard?
While its primary task is to enforce strict regulatory controls to ensure that flight safety is not compromised, CAA Pakistan is perhaps the sole state-owned corporation running profitably.
Unfortunately, its financial success and vast revenues have become its biggest curse. It has seen merit rubbished and political appointments by the defence ministry flourish– the most recent example of which is the appointment of the Chief Financial Officer, who is a close relative of a powerful political VVIP of this country.
CAA’s primary function of an aviation regulator has been overridden by its corporate interests. It owns and runs airports as well as all navigational aids installed at airports and along air routes and employs all personnel that monitor, control and operate them. It not only regulates the system – it owns it.
In addition, it is under administrative control of the defence secretary, who, in turn, reports to the defence minister and the prime minister.
With this in mind, if any of its functionaries or its equipment falters, and contributes to an accident or a crash, can we expect no conflict of interest? Can we expect a fair investigation?
The Accident Investigation Committee reports to ministry of defence or CAA. Only an independent committee, free of administrative control by the ministry of defence can carry out a fair investigation, apportion blame and suggest remedial measures to ensure that mishaps are avoided by all.
The particular case of Bhoja Air is a case in point. The airline sought permission for renewal of its Airline Operators Certificate in November 2011. CAA was supposed to carry out assessments of their infrastructure required for fulfilling all legal requirements for grant of permission – such as a fleet of at least three airworthy aircrafts with one fully serviceable standby aircraft, necessary maintenance facilities and finances to bear all operating costs and capacity to handle any emergency situation, procurement of spares etc.
As per the rules, all such requirements must be met before approval is granted.
It is a rigorous process – particularly for an airline that already has a questionable background.
Never mind anything else, Bhoja Air was unable even to simply transport relatives from Islamabad to Karachi. It was PIA which offered to do this, since nobody was there to take responsibility. If not Bhoja, then at least CAA, with its vast revenue and resources, should have borne this responsibility.
Who is responsible for obvious fast-tracking the return of Bhoja Air, before all formalities were completed?
Only this answer can give justice to the 127 dead and their loved ones.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2012.