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Wings on the ground

Dwindling and deteriorating resources, and the pandemic have prompted the PIA to close down its flight academy

PUBLISHED November 07, 2021

As a passenger, the toughest part about flying across continents is the unpleasant airplane food or the inconvenience of travelling on long flights with crying babies on board. But for pilots, there’s a lot that takes place to ensure the safe passage of a flight carrier. One small mistake or one misheard instruction, can have dire consequences.

However, getting a pilot’s license is not as easy as it sounds given the conditions in Pakistan. All over the world, there are merely a few government-owned clubs which provide the facility to get trained. Pakistan was one of them until last year when Pakistan International Airline (PIA)’s flight academy, producing pilots for a decade, was closed in November 2020.

The academy was running flawlessly until one day the management thought that running the academy is a burden on the international carrier and should be closed. “Primary work of PIA is not running a flight academy or any other departments which are causing losses or making it difficult to manage which is why it was closed down,” said PIA’s General Manager for media Abdullah Hafeez. He also pointed out that the academy was facing extreme losses and had been demanding new aircraft as the two that it owned were not in good shape and its finances were not enough to buy new ones to replace them. “PIA soon will be closing down a few more ventures which are costing the airline a hefty amount each month,” he shared, adding that PIA posts have also been shut down in recent past.

When the academy was closed it had around 60 students enrolled who were getting their training and flying experience and were later accommodated by private flying clubs. “In flying it is not mandatory to complete it from one academy. Also, there is no degree. It is a license, which one gets after flying a specific amount of hours,” said Hafeez. The students were informed that the academy was closing so many of them subsequently joined private flying clubs while a few of them left the whole idea of acquiring a pilot’s license altogether. The main reason for the academy turning to shambles was that for the past one and a half years of training, the practice as not carried out as flawlessly as it once used to be due to Covid. Other than that, an employee at the Civil Aviation authority also said that the chief reason that came up were financial losses, outdated planes and rising maintenance costs. Also, PIA’s main focus from here on as a business is to focus solely on its core functions.

Flying and licensing is not like a normal degree where you must complete a few semesters from a specific institute, but it is like taking classes to understand the basics and then completing specific number of flying hours. The hours of flying are recorded through a logbook which Civil Aviation maintains. Students can complete their hours from anywhere because at the end of the day logbook is what matters. “The log is maintained at two places at a time, one is logged by the flight instructor and another at the flight operations and both of them are being tallied daily to avoid any mistake. The CA later collects these logs to manage the flying times of every flight and pilot,” shared former PIA Academy chief engineer Muhammad Ajmal.

The academy was flourishing and the intake of students was overwhelming while the students’ selection criteria was through shortlisting of the candidates. The academy only had two aircrafts out of which, one crashed in the year before the academy was closed. “The reason why aspiring pilots prefer joining PIA’s academy and not private clubs is that the system, instructors and training is unmatchable and also PIA prefers pilot from their own academy when it comes to hiring later,” shared Ajmal.

What actually happened?

So when the academy had all what it takes to run a flying club from students to aircrafts and from name to fame, what went wrong then and how come it ended being shut down? “The fall of the academy is just because of corruption and political influence. Everyone wanted the academy to go down so they can buy the aircrafts in lower prices and use them for their private clubs,” said officer F*, who lost his job when the academy was shut down. The offer, on the condition of anonymity, also said that before finally closing it down for eight months, fuel was not provided and the plane was just parked and didn’t take any flight. “The main reason [to close it] was so that the Managing Director of the academy could open his own private academy in Multan and can buy aircraft or its equipment for a lower price when the academy and aircrafts are auctioned off.”

The two aircrafts that the PIA academy owned were of 1978-79 build Cessna 172, which has seating capacity of four. The academy faced losses but even then, the management used to buy expensive fuel and give tenders worth double the actual cost.

F* also said that when the academy was shut down there were ten students who were waiting to join. The academy went down due to personal enmity and personal benefits. After a lot of struggle the last flight was operated on November 20, 2020, and it was closed on November 30, 2020. “Almost all the employees who had been working at the academy since 2011, left their jobs and joined PIA Academy. Since then, the salaries were never revised and they got no perks. No policy was ever made and even today after nearly a year, our gratuities and pending payments have not been released. Many have joined private airlines but a lot of the employees are still jobless and finding it difficult to manage their daily expenses. We are hoping if we get our pending payments then we might start some small business of our own, which can help in managing our bread and butter,” he said, adding that there were around 19 employees who lost their jobs and 26 students who had to leave their training and join another academy elsewhere. He also said that four employees including a technician and an admin officer were adjusted in PIA, but the rest were not entertained.

In response to the accusation of corruption, PIA’s GM responded denying the claims, and stated that the decision to shut down was simply due to losses and PIA’s decision to shut down all functions that didn’t come under its core business plan so that the management could focus on the airline services. “The management cannot beat the losses, which the academy was costing,” he said. “We have also closed down postal services and will be closed down many other services too.”

The cost of licensing at the academy was in 170,00 rupees per hour which fluctuates with the fuel price, the last charges before the shut down was 210,00 per hour and for licensing each student needs 200 hours of flying for commercial license while for private jet licensing pilot needs 45 hours but when it comes to jobs, airlines mostly demand 1,000 to 1,500 hours of flying experience while PIA usually induct fresh license holders and train them. But for better opportunities, pilots take low paid jobs in clubs and become instructor and complete 1000-1500 hours of flying. Training planes such as Cessna do not get grounded just because they are old, but the aircraft needs maintenance. For example, changing the engine after 12 years or 2,000 hours of flying can make the plane good as new. Similarly, other parts can be replaced and that is what the management of the academy was not investing in despite having a bulk of students. The pilots when train on small aircrafts and get a license after flying a Cessna but when they are hired for commercial flying, they need to get further simulator trainings on specific aircrafts such as 737 or airbus 320. For simulator training, PIA is the only airline which has their own training centres, while all other private airlines have to send their inducted pilots abroad for trainings. After the pilots get simulator trainings, they serve as first officers at the aircrafts before finally flying the aircraft.

What happened to the students?

The dream to fly in the clouds one day is a very different as due to the cost of training and licensing, mostly give up on their dream but few who pursue it can also end up like many of the students who chose PIA academy. “The only reason I chose to train at PIA was due to its name, which is why I invested this huge amount but see where I am today,” said a student, who left his dream to fly and continued his studies at a private university pursuing MBA. The eight months which the students didn’t fly cost them Rs800,000 to 1,000,000 just because according to CA’s rules, one has to complete flying in two years of time which was not possible with eight months of a stand still situation.

Another student who got enrolled in a private flying club fought and took stand for everyone after a struggle of around five months they managed to get their payments back from PIA which they submitted for the licensing which they left hanging in the middle. “We had to write to PIA’s head after four months of continuous visits from one office to another to get our payments back, then the financial head helped and our payments were returned,” said a student M* who is completing his flight hours at a private flying club.

Other than the management not being supportive, the ground classes and decorum at the academy was unmatchable. “PIA is a big name which is why we opted for it and the training and learning system was outclass but the management ruined it all for us,” he told adding that after waiting for eight months for flying, he joined a private club in March 2021 as he was getting good discounts there but shifting was not easy in terms of learning, course changed, examination system changed. Many of his classmates abandoned the whole idea of flying because the penalty and extra time of flying was costing a lot when the total of licensing already crosses Rs 4.5 million.

The private clubs are cheaper but still they are in profit, for example the current average cost is Rs 17,000 to 20,000 per hour which is similar to what PIA was charging a year ago. “There are still students from batch four and six who are completing their hours meanwhile I am from batch 10 of PIA, so one can imagine what issues were there at the end of management. Also it is not only students who suffered at the hands of management but even employees who were fired had pending salaries of as long as three months,” he said.

Burden on private clubs

Since the government run academy has been shut for a year now the burden to produce pilots have landed upon the private flying clubs. “The country has around six to seven flying clubs, which are producing pilots and many foreigners also come to learn to fly here,” said Tasadduq Jillani, who works for private flying club Sky Wings. Jillani who is retired from the Air force, also said that worldwide the employees per aircraft are 170 to 180 but in PIA, due to political influenced inductions we have over 760 employees per aircraft, which is the biggest corruption of the airline. “Not just one political party but MQM, PPP, PML-N - everyone has contributed their share in it. There was a time when PIA helped establishing airlines such as Emirates, Oman, Gulf and Malaysia but today bulk of employees are just sitting and don’t even know what they have to do,” he said. The country’s flagship airline is not only going down day by day but many people after being associated with PIA started their own businesses. “The 60-year-old New York route which was with PIA was given to Gulf countries just for the sake of money,” he informed.

In the last few years flying has been made safer and easier with planes made of composite material and very little aluminum, which helps make the aircrafts lighter in weight. “Aircrafts are for a lifetime and each and every part can be changed to new. There are specific teams for inspection after certain hours of flying but even then, aircrafts are grounded after 50 to 60 years,” he explained.

Learning to fly is an art and it needs dedication, “We don’t feel burdened with students, but we try to teach them to do better, and many have joined international airlines as well after learning from here,” said the COO of Sky Wings, Imran Aslam. He also said that they are charging an average of Rs 18,000 per hour for flying which is somewhat cheaper than what PIA was charging but still they managed to run the academy in profit while PIA, even with state of the art facilities, couldn’t do so.