As air travel continues to grow in popularity and regularity around the world, flying a plane within Pakistan continues to be a highly risky endeavour. A recent study concluded that Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to board a flight, second only to Russia and Iran, countries that have both faced significant sanctions from global powers. In the last 10 years alone, over 370 people have died in domestic flights in Pakistan.
The country is well below international standards and best practices for domestic flights. While operations for international flights in and out of Pakistan do meet best in class standards set by the ICAO, domestic airlines regularly do not meet the same. In short, Pakistani lives are valued less than the lives of the others. The plethora of domestic flight incidents relative to the dearth of international ones speaks volumes of the government’s priorities.
Pakistan is not only a dangerous place to board a plane, but also majorly lacking in the legal infrastructure and support families need following crashes and other aviation disasters.
Around 19.6 million people board a flight in Pakistan every year and in the aviation industry it is never a question of if, but when the next flight disaster will occur. And when it does, according to a prominent lawyer who covers the industry, “there exists a lacuna in the law providing for a comprehensive framework for the assistance of families of air crash victims, whereas other jurisdictions have developed effective procedures and mechanisms to assign responsibility to provide assistance to families.” In comparison, the United States, China and Australia have all in the past 25 years passed legislation that provides a comprehensive support system for the families of crash victims.
In 2012, the government passed the Carriage by Air Act, which requires regulators and airlines to adopt many of the principles from aviation conventions of the past century in places such as Prague, Montreal and Warsaw. The law holds domestic flights to less strict standards than international flights and took some drastic measures, including reducing the compensation to the families of victims of air accidents by 50 per cent. New legislation for a bill to consolidate certain powers with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been sitting in draft form on the CAA’s website since 2016, but experts have warned that the bill leaves much to be desired.
This lacuna in the law has been particularly noticeable in the last eight years with the AirBlue and Bhoja Air crashes. Families had no central point of contact, were unable to get death certificates for quite some time and are still awaiting compensation from the government and airlines all these years later. In the instance of AirBlue flight 202 in 2010, the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences hospital in Islamabad was approached by families for the issuance of death certificates, who informed them that because the death of the victims had not occurred at the hospital, they were not in a position to issue death certificates. The death certificates were ultimately issued to families by AirBlue many months after the crash, well after succession issues started impacting families.
This lack of proper standards shouldn’t come as a surprise. Pakistan has never been known for following the rules, let alone its own, and the country’s namesake airline is in a shambles. Name an individual who has not had a horrible experience flying the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Moreover, pilots regularly flout the rules and occasionally let passengers sit in the cockpit, a norm unheard of in most of the world. The airline maintains a programme that enables PIA pilots to preserve valuable pilot jobs for their sons, while leaving qualified pilots on the sidelines. Once pilots are past the retirement age at PIA, they can easily get jobs at other domestic airlines with little complication.
In a country where an inspector from the Civil Aviation Authority is easily paid off to sign off on an airplane inspection — are airline passengers in Pakistan ever really safe?
Air travel will continue to grow in popularity both in Pakistan and around the world. According to the International Air Travel Association, there were 3.8 billion airline trips in 2016, up by seven per cent from the year prior. The fastest growing region globally for air traffic was Asia-Pacific.
Will Pakistan be a role model for other Asian countries when it comes to flight safety? Or will it continue its reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous places to board a flight? Only time will tell.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2018.