PIA blues II: The plane truth about flight safety

Published: October 4, 2011
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Cosy relationship with the regulator, weak internal oversight ensure that the national flag carrier stays sub-standard. DESIGN: ESSA MALIK

Cosy relationship with the regulator, weak internal oversight ensure that the national flag carrier stays sub-standard. DESIGN: ESSA MALIK

KARACHI: 

Recent months have witnessed a number of PIA aircraft making ‘emergency’ or ‘technical’ landings, while the spectre of another ban by the EU haunts the national flag carrier. The Express Tribune continues to investigate in part II of the series.

Cutting corners

Saleem Irshad*, a retired flight engineer who worked at PIA for 30 years, doesn’t concur with Pakistan International Airline’s spokesperson Mashood Tajwar, who disregards the notion that technical issues could have had perilous implications.

“There are grave problems as far as maintenance of PIA aircraft and adherence to flight procedures is concerned,” Irshad says. “For example the grease required to lubricate the plane on landing, is often substandard, and in many cases has caused the landing gear to catch fire due to friction.”

He vehemently dismisses the widely-held notion that technical irregularities in PIA’s fleet are the result of ageing aircraft.

“The ATR planes, which experienced technical failures [on September 2], were purchased three or four years ago, so it’s not a matter of an ageing fleet,” he says. “The new generation of aircraft is fuel efficient and lighter, but they need preventive maintenance, which PIA does not adequately ensure.”

A potential reason for technical deficiencies in aircraft is the plummeting standards of engineering in the airline, says the president of Society of Aircraft Engineers of Pakistan (SAEP), Shaukat Jamshed.

“For the past four or five years, we have not inducted engineers and technicians, while serving personnel have retired or migrated,” he explains. “This has resulted in a gap in engineering standards.”

He says that PIA’s A-310 planes are possibly on the verge of ban again by the EU, but dismisses the idea that safety violations by the company’s aircraft are a serious concern. “The main issue, which the French aviation authorities detected, was fuel leakage and we are currently investigating that,” he says.

 Technical issues causing delays?

The dearth of standby planes is also a cause of flight delays – now a notorious trait of the airline.

“Since flights are queued back to back, even if one plane experiences some technical issue, three to four flights will get delayed in succession,” explains Jamshed.

The airline’s spokesperson, however, refutes the notion of a vicious cycle linking dearth of planes with technical predicaments and delays.

“In August and September, we were facing very bad weather and bird crowding on runways. Hence the delays,” Mashood Tajwar explains.

What about the postponement in Umrah flights during August, which highly irked pilgrims?

“It was the peak season for flights and our schedule was fully booked so delays due to unavoidable circumstances, like aircraft maintenance, resulted in long waiting hours for pilgrims,” Tajwar says.

A retired managing director for PIA marketing, however, is not apologetic. “They are all just a result of gross mismanagement,” he says. “When appointments in an organisation have been made on the basis of political and personal connections, what else would you expect?”

Who regulates the national carrier?

Why does PIA continue to be marred by mismanagement?

“Airlines everywhere will try to cut corners, but it’s the job of the regulatory authority to ensure that it meets international standards,” says Irshad. “The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has failed to regulate PIA, because of a stark conflict of interest. The CAA has serving and retired PIA officials and is therefore not a neutral regulatory body.”

Irshad’s point about the overlap between the two organisations – particularly in the top management – couldn’t have been truer than at present. PIA’s current Managing Director Nadeem Yousafzai previously served as Director General CAA, while retaining his position as a PIA pilot.

“How can a body effectively regulate an airline when its staff is serving at the highest positions in the former?” he asks rhetorically.

Highlighting the fact that the CAA is one of the few government organisations which generates lucrative profits, he adds, “The CAA is now primarily a revenue-generating body and its regulatory function of ensuring air worthiness of planes is secondary.”

Sources in PIA say the CAA also fails to perform its basic function of clearing runways of birds, leaving the planes vulnerable to bird hits and consequent delays.

From January to July, there were 41 incidents of bird strikes, and each hit can cause up to a million rupees in damages to the aircraft.

But CAA’s spokesperson Pervez George is quick to dismiss these allegations.

“Whoever is appointed to work for the CAA has to follow certain rules and regulations to ensure air worthiness of planes, regardless of their affiliation with PIA or any other organisation,” he asserted. “Thus the overlap between CAA and PIA does not compromise the former’s neutrality.”

Regarding the recent technical issues with PIA planes, he said, “The CAA endeavours to fully ensure the fleet’s adherence to security standards, but minor technical problems can take place any time and are beyond our control.”

With the possibility of another EU ban looming, the next few months are potentially going to be crucial for PIA and CAA’s reputation. And it will take a lot for PIA to convince travellers that their operational standards are as lofty as the skies their planes fly in.

*names have been changed

Published in The Express Tribune, October 4th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Amjad
    Oct 4, 2011 - 10:28AM

    Only when PIA’s passengers start to complain, will the airline smarten up. I know that most people I know in Canada and the US blindly prefer PIA flights to any other airline. That’s why the PIA flights are always booked and it is difficult to get a flight at times. No one has mentioned the habit of dishonest travel agents in North America who always try to sell you an Emirates or Qatar Airways ticket because they insist PIA is fully booked. It’s because they get more kick backs/ commissions from the Gulf airlines but no matter to customers preferences to take PIA. PIA doesn’t complain because they take it for granted that folks will always take PIA even if they are more expensive than other airlines. Why should an airline that is always full be losing money? We all know why.

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  • meekal ahmed
    Oct 4, 2011 - 2:43PM

    This is a well-informed and balanced article. I commend the author. I wish some pilots flying the A-310 and ATR had been interviewed. NO pilot will accept an aircraft for flight that is defective. The life he is most interested in saving is his/her own.

    The bird hazard in Pakistan is well known. It can do more than just cause damage; it can bring down an airplane and bird-hits should be taken seriously. Having open garbage dumps all over major cities does not help.

    Amjad you ask a question I have asked before. Why does an airline which always seems to be full still make such huge losses? I suspect part of the answer is that the passengers are friends and relatives of those in PIA, the CAA, the Ministry of Defense and so on. They are free-loaders Recommend

  • H.A. Khan
    Oct 4, 2011 - 3:09PM

    “……………..bird crowding on runways. Hence the delays,” Yeh right!

    I recently travelled Business class on PIA on Karachi to London sector and I was served second cup of tea in disposable plastic glass. The entertainment system was sub par and bad. The crew just did not have the right attitude to serve.The smile was missing. The seat did not recline.The aircraft was 777-200.

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  • Yousaf
    Oct 4, 2011 - 4:31PM

    Few days I have called the PIA call center, the guy who spoke to me was so rude and talking in a style like I am on his mercy. We choose national airline due to own airline along with some benefits like additional luggage. World’s No. 1 airline is worst than any African airline.

    Delays are habit of PIA, if you do a little interviews of the people travelling on PIA, you will find the truth. We have made up our mind to pay little extra and travel in any other airline to ensure safety or at least timely flights.

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  • Smulleeparkee
    Oct 4, 2011 - 5:02PM

    I once flew PIA and a cage of chickens fell on my head from the overhead baggage compartment,velly dangerous.Another alarming thing i encountered was that i was looking out of the window when a mouthful of paan spit hit the outside of the window, are the pilot(s) allowed to eat paan whilst flying the aircraft?also isnt it a bit dangerous at 34000 ft to be opening their window to spit out their spitool.Recommend

  • Hasan Mehmood
    Oct 4, 2011 - 5:47PM

    @H.A. Khan:
    You should have known better and not wasted your money. Whom do you think you were flying with? Emirates? Singapore Airline?

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  • Shahzad
    Oct 4, 2011 - 6:47PM

    This is an airline which has become victim of a management which in past 4 years is dominated by those who have no experience in marketing, administration and absolutely no integrity. PIA pilots may be good in their professional skills, but hardly have any education or exposure in management, or office work. Airline management is a specialized field and unfortunately what you see in PIA are cronies occupying top executive posts. Some of them are very controversial, with a history of financial discipline. Flight safety depends on strict regulatory controls by CAA, which is missing here. Pilferages in procurement lead to depletion of funds allocated for repair, overhaul etc and hence too many defects left unattended.

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  • CJ is Corrupted, People are Brain-Dead
    Oct 5, 2011 - 4:40AM

    Main tu PIA hi laisa!

    When was the last time PIA had their TVC aired?

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  • Hashmi
    Oct 5, 2011 - 10:35AM

    With an EU ban who will be hauling PIA passengers to Europe?
    Will it be Turkish airline which already has code sharing agreement with PIA? This ban will help in moving ahead with the Turkish-PIA plan that most of us believe is dead after forced change of PIA top management.
    Secondly, the reason for substandard parts is not cost cutting but the business interests of PIA management as vendors for PIA.
    God help us and God help PIA.

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  • Long Standing
    Oct 5, 2011 - 2:10PM

    @Smulleeparkee: are you sure that you were flying in an aircraft or in a bus…nways it was quite humorousRecommend

  • Long Standing
    Oct 5, 2011 - 2:11PM

    Amreekan Conspiracy.. Death to CIA ..

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  • Haqqani
    Oct 5, 2011 - 5:10PM

    Mr Saleem Irshad: i’ve no idea which brand of grease were you using while serving PIA that used to melt away that easily..mostly Aero Shell Grease 33 is used which is a synthetic universal airframe grease composed of lithium complex thickened synthetic base oil with corrosion & oxidation inhibitors and load carrying additives under operating tempreatures of -73 Degree celsius to +121 degree celsius approved by all manufacturers & with proven track record.

    abh agar thook laga k kaam chala rhay hon sab tau alag baat hai !!!

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  • meekal ahmed
    Oct 6, 2011 - 12:02AM

    @Smulleeparkee:

    You are obviously not an aviation person. Do you seriously think that at 34,000 feet and with an outside temperature of about -56C and a cabin pressure differential of 7.5 psi that the pilot is going to slide open his cockpit window and spit?

    If he had opened his window (he can’t even move it in flight), there would have been explosive decompression and anything and everything that was loose would have been sucked out of his wiondow — probably including himself and any one else not strapped in tightly.

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  • meekal ahmed
    Oct 6, 2011 - 12:12AM

    @H.A. Khan:

    Yes, birds are near or even on runways. If you suck a flock into your engines which on a jet are doing 18,000 rpm, you could end up very dead.

    Engines are tested at full power and they throw frozen chickens into them. That is part of the certification process.

    Chickens, water, ice, snow, whatever they can find. The engines are tough as hell and can take a terrible beating but they will simply flame out if faced with extreme conditions. If fact they abuse the engine till it fails so they know how much stress it can take.

    Same with the wings. They bend them till they snap.

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  • Mustafa
    Oct 6, 2011 - 2:31PM

    @ meekal ahmed: Smulleeparkee was obviously joking…stop being such a know it all

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  • Mcfadden
    Oct 23, 2011 - 11:56AM

    While many airlines worldwide are migrating to A380’s,A350’s,A320NEO’s,747-8I and 787’s(personally my favourite), what a shame PIA still hangs on to the old 747-300’s, A 310’s and 737’s. These planes consume just too much gasoline and are way too old now.
    Learn something from Emirates,15 A380’s currently in the fleet and going upto 90.
    Look at ANA, the launch customer for the 787 Dreamliner. The airplane uses 20 percent less fuel than today’s similarly sized airplanes.
    Hello…….PIA management !!!! its not rocket science……….

    Recommend

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