It was just another flight, bringing pilgrims back to Lahore from Jeddah on August 30. The cabin crew walked along the aisle, attending to passengers, many of whom sat comfortably without their seatbelts.
Suddenly, about 45 minutes prior to the plane’s scheduled landing, the aircraft jolted, and descended in a free-fall, dangerously plummeting from 30,000 to 16,000 feet within minutes. The passengers panicked, as they were hurled towards the aircraft’s roof, and the cabin crew struggled to stay on their feet. The aircraft had accidentally ventured into an air pocket, a turbulent movement of air mass.
Much to the passenger’s relief, the airplane managed to exit the air pocket after a while, and became stable again and the crew administered first-aid to injured passengers.
When the plane landed safely, jittery passengers exited at the Lahore airport, glad to be alive.
PIA described the incident as an “unavoidable circumstance,” since a plane’s radar system cannot detect air pockets. But while flight PK7322 was struck by forces of nature, several other PIA flights have experienced fiascos caused by human errors.
Delays in domestic and international flights are a routine for PIA, and bad weather or stray birds at runways cannot be held responsible for all of them. Besides, recent technical shortcomings in aircraft, which have caused a series of emergency or ‘technical’ landings, were hardly inevitable occurrences.
French aviation authorities sent a letter, dated August 23, to their Pakistani counterpart, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), requesting them to submit a report over the failure of PIA’s Airbus A-310 plane to adhere to international safety regulations. The letter cited 40 unattended defects in the aircraft, detected by safety assessment of foreign aircraft programme inspectors.
This is the second time the airline’s A-310 aircraft face a possible ban from the European Union. In March 2007, the EU imposed a ban on most of PIA’s fleet due to safety concerns, but subsequently lifted it in November 2007.
A retired flight captain, who worked at the airline for 29 years, strongly criticised PIA’s engineers and technicians for grossly violating safety benchmarks.
“The EU knows how PIA engineers try to hoodwink them,” he said, on the condition of anonymity. “They need to stop circumventing regulations and attend to the fleet’s technical problems instead of making temporary, makeshift repairs.”
CAA’s spokesperson Pervez George says that recent irregularities in PIA’s fleet – particularly those pinpointed by the French aviation authorities – are being taken seriously and are under investigation by the organisation.
A reliable source in the airline added that technical issues in planes are aggravated by the absence of spare planes in the fleet. “There is very little ground time that engineers get to do maintenance work on aircraft because the planes are all scheduled to fly.”
A possible ban is not the only concern for PIA. An embarrassing string of technical shortcomings has recently plagued PIA flights including the September 27, Islamabad-Karachi flight PK-369, which made an emergency landing at Multan Airport due to a malfunctioning generator, and a UAE-bound flight PK-255, which took off from Peshawar, but had to land in Karachi due to the same issue, merely 24 hours after the first incident.
A flight from Sialkot to Jeddah, PK-745, carrying 480 passengers had to make an emergency landing in Karachi on August 6, after its landing gear failed to retract after takeoff.
On September 2, two smaller aircraft - PK-501 carrying 21 passengers from Karachi to Turbat and PK-508 with 32 passengers heading from Panjgur to Karachi - had to make ‘technical landings’ after engine failures.
PIA spokesperson Mashood Tajwar is quick to disregard the notion that these technical issues could have had perilous implications.
“We have not experienced any major problem with our fleet,” he says. “It’s routine for machines to experience minor technical problems and these don’t impact the performance of the aircraft.”
He adds that the airline is investigating the technical shortfalls in their aircraft.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 3rd, 2011.