The decision to establish an aviation division under which the Civil Aviation Authority, the Airport Security Force and the national carrier, PIA, are being placed is a move in the right direction. However, one should understand that such moves have been made in the past, and then reverted, with the result that there has been confusion, in which some have benefitted but most have suffered.
The government has to be right sized. Thanks to successive regimes, we have seen in the past decade, the number of employees and state entities has increased manifold, almost doubled. At the same time, the government’s ability to deliver essential services has suffered and its effectiveness waned.
Government service seems like the ultimate gravy train where no one gets off, only shunted or sent to another carriage. Initially, jobs were created to provide employment to all. Then they were given as part of the grand tradition of political patronage and more recently they are sold.
For most, working for the government means enriching one’s self. There is no concept of accountability or merit. One progresses on the basis of corruption, loyalty or both. In all this, one can only wonder why every year without fail, federal government employees are given raises in the budget. For work they have not done and for a privilege they do not deserve.
Coming back to the CAA and PIA, these are two monsters that need to be tamed. Instead of moving from strength to strength, they have been floundering — more so because of the quality of people appointed to run them.
Pakistani airports, for example, are sad places. They are poorly run and badly maintained. The taxes imposed under different heads on air travellers are one of the highest in the region. And yet, despite the over-employment at these places, most services are not delivered. Luggage trolleys are broken, conveyor belts need replacement. Theft is common. Restaurants are over-priced. Buses that convey passengers to planes and back are falling apart while bridges that connect terminal buildings to planes are filthy.
Given the amount of traffic these airports serve, had they been run on commercial lines, they would have been possibly one of the busiest airports in the region. It is ironic that passenger traffic has increased several times over but the number of airlines serving has dropped over the past 10 years. Funds have been diverted to wacky projects and much has been spent on VIP services.
Flight safety, which was once a strong point of the CAA, has also been compromised several times over. The whole set-up is wrong. Firstly, due to a series of controversial appointments. And also the fact that the CAA is both the regulator of the sector, as well as the entity running the airports. That perhaps explains why no report on aircraft crashes is released in its entirety. It would show the CAA blaming itself.
The less said about PIA the better. From one of the leading airlines in the region, it has reduced itself to a poor reminder of its former self. PIA’s market has been taken over by regional Gulf carriers. Traffic has increased considerably but PIA’s fortunes, ironically, have waned.
PIA has been the milking cow for many. Even the PML-N government in past tenures mismanaged it. How can we forget how PIA aircraft are commandeered for VVIP duty. And how jobs were given to near and dear ones.
In all this, the lesson is the same. These entities are commercial in nature and have to be run on commercial lines by a professional management. Even the ASF, which has improved over the years, needs to re-examine its role and functions. Aviation safety has moved too far ahead for the Airport Security Force to be managed like a brigade.
A bigger issue is government service. It is good that the government has advertised that it wants professional managers to head public sector entities. At the same time, it should respect the mandate of the people and let these entities be run without interference. That is the bigger challenge. And surplus staff has to be sacked. But not the way PIA was stripped under a martial law regulation in the times of General Zia under which only a certain shade of employee was allowed to remain. Everything has to be aboveboard.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2013.
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