Some shame, some questions

The real question to ask was the competence of the inquiry committee itself.

Kamal Siddiqi June 29, 2020

The Minister for Aviation, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, claimed that one in every three civilian pilots in Pakistan has a fake licence. This statement, which has been quoted widely the world over, has caused immense damage to Pakistan’s image. The national carrier, PIA, which may never be able to recover.

Ghulam Sarwar Khan, a zamindar by profession with no aviation background, was himself disqualified in 2013 by the Supreme Court for possessing fake degrees. According to the Higher Education Commission (HEC), both his graduation degree and his diploma in engineering were found fake. However, on March 1, 2019, the Anti-Corruption Establishment stated that the diploma has been found to be genuine. Following this, in April 2019, the minister was acquitted in this case.

But that is diverting from the real issue. When was such an inquiry set up, who were its members and what were the full contents of its findings? The Supreme Court would be most interested in this given it has in the past asked for such an exercise to be conducted.

One wonders why declare these findings at a time when the preliminary investigation report of the Karachi PIA crash that occurred in May was also being made public. While the report itself does not suggest this, Ghulam Sarwar Khan told parliament that the pilots of the PIA plane that crashed on May 22 were not focused during the flight. He pointed out their “overconfidence and lack of concentration” as some of the reasons for the tragedy. Where did the minister get these gems? Was it done to spite the all-powerful Pakistan Airline Pilots Association (PALPA) which has already objected to the composition of the inquiry committee which has been the subject of much debate?

According to the National Aviation Policy 2019, the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, commission or any other body tasked with carrying out investigations of aircraft accidents would comprise qualified professionals so that the findings and safety recommendations of the investigation were of high standards, undiluted and beneficial for the Aviation Sector. This has not been the case here.

The real question to ask was the competence of the inquiry committee itself. It had little or no representation from those with experience in commercial aviation. But the minister chose not to address these questions.

This sad situation points to a greater malaise in Pakistan’s aviation industry — the role played by the regulator of the sector — the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). When it comes to flight safety, enforcement and investigation as well as the release of reports on previous air crashes in Pakistan, the CAA seems to have a lot to answer for.

A closer look at CAA may give some idea of what ails it. The CAA has not had a Director General since 2017. The last DG was Air Marshal Asim Suleiman. Since then, the Secretary Aviation is holding this additional charge. Most of the key director posts are vacant and are being looked after by junior officers or those with dual charge. This includes the Directors for Operations, Airport Services, Human Resources, Training (Hyderabad), Works, Regulatory Affairs, Safety & Quality and Security.

These positions are being managed by people who themselves are on contract. This suggests that people who are qualified to run these departments are not heading them and instead a temporary system is in place for many years. The CAA board, which oversees the overall functioning of the authority, is itself depleted with only three members and eight vacancies. Both professionalism and accountability have suffered.

How can the CAA oversee such sensitive areas like flight safety and enforcement when it is lacking the expertise of people with experience in commercial aviation? But who will bell the cat? One should ask the minister why pilots were able to give exams by proxy in the first place. Who in the CAA was responsible for this? What action has been taken against those who looked the other way?

We have to also remember that the CAA continues to do well financially. It has posted an annual income of over Rs70 billion. Why do we want to sell it? We should be addressing its internal problems. Let us bring back the professionals with experience in commercial aviation. How hard is that? We cannot keep on running such an important sector on an ad hoc basis.

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