Clipped Wings: How Pakistan’s Aviation Was Grounded.

On June 24 this year, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Aviation, Ghulam Sarwar Khan was supposed to give a statement in parliament about the progress of investigations into the crash, a month earlier in Karachi, of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight 8303 in which 97 people had tragically lost their lives. Instead, he delivered a speech that left people around the world stunned and Pakistan’s aviation industry reeling.

On the floor of the National Assembly, the minister claimed that more than 30 percent of the civilian pilots in the country held “fake” licences. He added that 262 out of the 860 active pilots in the country “did not take the exam themselves” and had paid someone else to appear on their behalf.

In one fell swoop, the minister had damned the entire aviation sector in Pakistan, throwing a big question mark over the credibility of its regulator, the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) — which issues pilots’ licences — and indeed over the safety of Pakistani airlines themselves. It was a shocking revelation and deserved to make everyone’s hair stand on end.

Except that it wasn’t true.

The issue of alleged irregularities in pilots’ licences had been simmering in Pakistan for over two years but at a much smaller scale — there had been questions about 20 or so licences in total. And, as later events would prove, the minister’s contentions were rife with inaccuracy, exaggeration and outright falsehood. Pakistan’s aviation sector is still dealing with the fallout.

While the minister, ruling party supporters and even Prime Minister Imran Khan initially backed the speech, citing it as evidence of their concern for passengers and their determination to root out corruption in Pakistan, other observers were aghast at the way the whole issue had been handled.

The international media was quick to pick up the implications of Sarwar’s statement. On June 25, CNN carried a story stating that “almost 1 in 3 pilots in Pakistan have fake licences, aviation minister says.” It was a killer line and things only snowballed from there.

On June 30, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), wrote to PIA to share with the airline its decision to suspend its flight operations to and from EU member countries for six months, with effect from July 1. On July 15, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that Pakistan had been assigned a ‘Category 2’ rating, because it does not comply with the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) safety standards. And Pakistani pilots in Vietnam, Turkey, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Gulf region were also grounded from flying until they were cleared.

This is the story of how incompetence, personal ambition and lust for attention has almost sunk Pakistan’s aviation sector.

THE LIST THAT NEVER WASIt wasn’t as if the international media was the only one paying attention. PIA CEO Air Marshal Arshad Malik was listening to Sarwar’s speech, sitting in his office in Karachi. According to some PIA senior officials, when the air marshal heard the minister’s words on television, he put his hands to his head in disbelief. Like many others, he was angry and frustrated but he managed to keep his demeanour calm. He simply turned to his team and instructed them to “fasten [their] seat belts” and to get ready. Everyone in the room knew they had to move fast and go into damage-control mode.

PIA immediately wrote to PCAA, asking for the list of pilots with “fake licences” the minister had spoken about so publicly. But there was no list to be given, and so nothing was sent to the national flag carrier.

With pressure mounting, PIA sent a second letter to PCAA to provide the list the day after Sarwar’s speech, but this letter too remained unanswered. Soon enough, harsh words were being exchanged between Air Marshal Arshad Malik and Air Commodore Syed Nasir Raza Hamdani, who was Deputy Director-General (Regulatory) PCAA and apparently had something that he had labelled as the “list.”

The argument over the handling of this issue continued. Finally, after almost two days, a list was shared with the airlines and the media. But from the outset, there was suspicion that it had been put together without much fact-checking or investigation. This proved to be true within days, and in a written clarification sent to the airlines on August 25, PCAA accepted that at least 33 pilots should not have been on the list of 262 at all. Over 100 pilots have since been cleared, including 28 from PIA. PIA has cancelled the licences of 17 pilots and 53 of its pilots are still facing investigations. Over two dozen of the 262 pilots are in court contesting their names being put on the list.

Of course, senior officials at Pakistani airlines were also shocked and angry at the way the whole matter had been handled. Pilots were livid, especially those who felt their names had been unfairly put on the list. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Association (IFALPA) put their dismay into words. The association declared that Sarwar’s speech was “on the brink of being reckless, not just for the individuals named, but for Pakistan and its ability to continue operating international air services.”

Since the fiasco in June, most government officials, including the prime minister and foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, have admitted that the matter could have been handled better. Sarwar has also regretted trusting those who brought the licences list to him.

So how did this announcement come about?

A PENCHANT FOR MAKING HEADLINESSarwar’s speech was originally scheduled for June 22, a month after the PIA crash on May 22 killed all but two on board. One night before the scheduled speech, on June 21, Sarwar met with his ministry officials, PIA officials and the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information, Lt Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa. In the meeting, pointers were discussed and details were finalised about the report by the PIA team, based on a preliminary investigation report.

Many officials who deal with the minister say that he has a fondness for making headlines, presenting himself as a saviour who is unearthing mega corruption scandals. When the PIA staff gave him pointers for his speech about the crash, he did not like it. He was adamant that he wanted to speak about accountability, the previous government and its connection to the mess in PIA. He reportedly threw away the notes and left the room in a huff. Nonetheless, at this high-level meeting, it was decided that the language of the minister’s speech would be moderate and that it would focus on the crash.

The next day, the matter was discussed in the cabinet and the cabinet also provided full support to the minister to share the report with the nation. The impression of various cabinet ministers was that the ill-fated flight’s pilots had acted recklessly and that there were serious issues of oversight and professionalism that had led to the crash.

The same day, the minister, along with Secretary Aviation Division Hassan Nasir Jamy and PCAA’s Commodore Syed Nasir Raza Hamdani had a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan. Reportedly, during the meeting, the prime minister remembered that there was an investigation by the Board of Investigation on the issue of pilots’ licences, and asked Sarwar about it. The minister checked with Jamy, who confirmed it from Hamdani, and it was finally claimed that there was indeed a report and a list. According to multiple sources at the Aviation Division, nobody from PIA or other local airlines was informed about this issue. And nobody was consulted about ‘the list’ or the report.

Later that day, there was another meeting planned between Sarwar, Jamy, the PIA team and Bajwa, but the minister did not turn up. He instead went to the PM Secretariat and then directly to parliament. The speech was delayed until two days later. During this time the minister apparently wanted to review the licences data and clarify a few points. Reportedly, the prime minister also asked his team to prep the minister for his speech.

Multiple sources claim that they advised the minister to stick to the language that had been cleared. He was, for example, asked to use the word “suspicious” not “fake” to refer to the licences. But on June 24, Sarwar used words that brought the whole house crashing down. The actual investigation into the report on pilots’ licences and the veracity of the alleged list did not start until everything had gone up in flames.

Following the speech and its aftermath, I spoke to a dozen officials in PCAA, PIA, and several pilots of different airlines. All the conversations came back to the incompetence of the minister. On June 24, while everyone was expecting a breakthrough in the investigation of the PIA plane crash in Karachi, the minister opened up a different Pandora’s box instead. This was done against the advice of many within his own ministry and without any plan to deal with the repercussions.

In one fell swoop, the minister had damned the entire aviation sector in Pakistan, throwing a big question mark over the credibility of its regulator, the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) — which issues pilots’ licences — and indeed over the safety of Pakistani airlines themselves.

A senior Aviation Division official says the minister, “did not even think this kind of reaction would emerge.” Sarwar’s assumption was that, “everybody would jump on to the accountability bandwagon and praise his forthright approach and rally around, making him a hero.” Of course, quite the opposite ended up happening, and Pakistan’s aviation sector was grounded in the process.

At a press conference on June 26, Sarwar tried to backpedal, using the phrase “licences obtained through dubious means” for what he had initially termed fake. Interestingly, on July 1, four days after the press conference, PM Imran Khan, while speaking on the floor of the house said, “they were saying that I should hide the PIA report” and that he could not have done that because “people’s lives were in danger”, and if he knew that there are fake licences and did not report it, there would be blood on his hands. Khan again called the licences “fake pilot licenses.”

At that point, there was still no mention of how this list had been compiled. Then there were major blunders in the list, as if someone had prepared it in haste. Former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who is himself a pilot, served as the chairman of PIA and owns Airblue — the country’s second-largest airline — said that “the premature sharing of the list” was a disaster. “This is a serious matter and it should be investigated,” he said. “The government first issued the list without any investigation and only announced an investigation later.”

PETTY PERSONAL AMBITIONSOfficials in the Aviation Division and PCAA say that minister Sarwar is usually very sceptical of everything and did not trust anyone. But, somehow, he was comfortable with what Jamy and Hamdani had shared with him regarding the report and the alleged list. This, of course, proved to be a fatal mistake.

Hamdani’s claims about the list were simply unfounded. And when he was expected to walk the talk, he had no ground to stand on. The lists that eventually were presented to the media were an eye-opener, with plenty of immediately questionable data, much of it later proven factually wrong.

It is worth noting that Hamdani spent most of his time around that period in Islamabad around the aviation secretary, even though his own office is in Karachi. According to multiple sources in the Aviation Division, Hamdani was lobbying for the position of DG PCAA, which had been vacant since March 2018. If you look at the photos shared by the Aviation Division in those days, Hamdani can be seen in them. On July 8, for example, the Canadian High Commissioner Wendy Gilmore along with the Canadian Defence Adviser called on the secretary aviation at his office. Sitting with the secretary one can see Hamdani along with the Joint Secretary Abdul Sattar Khokhar.

The important DG CAA position still remains vacant today. The way the pilots’ licence fiasco unfolded, it was unlikely that Hamdani would be given the job. Eventually, Hamdani was sent back to his parent Pakistan Air Force (PAF), where he retired in August. In September, he was appointed in PCAA as a consultant, incredibly overseeing the pilots’ licence issue.

AN OLD ISSUEThe pilots’ licences issue is not new in Pakistan, or around the world. There have been multiple scandals in Europe and the US where pilots have been charged with lying and obtaining licences through dubious methods.

In Pakistan, the debate around the issue originally started in 2018, when the then Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, took notice of fake degree holders in PIA, and asked PCAA and PIA to review all the degrees and licences of pilots and other PIA staff. A three-judge Supreme Court (SC) bench headed by the CJP took up the matter of fake degrees held by pilots of different airlines in May 2018.

The issue resurfaced when a PIA flight, PK-517, skidded off the runway of Panjgur Airport on November 11, 2018. No one was injured in the incident but, according to PIA, when they investigated the pilot’s record, they found that the test date on the licence of the pilot had been a federal holiday. Based on this, PIA and PCAA assumed that the licencing test was fake, as testing could not have taken place on that day. A court issued a status quo on the matter.

This investigation was widened and 16 PIA pilots were grounded in early 2019 because of disparities in their educational or academic records. In some cases, pilots’ FA and matriculation degrees were found to be fake.

On December 7, 2018, the SC was informed that, out of the 498 pilots in PIA, the educational degrees of 12 pilots had turned out to be fake. The Supreme Court orderd that PIA should take strict action, and as a result seven pilots were terminated. If we go further back, in 2015, Secretary Aviation Division, Mohammad Ali Gardezi, had informed the Public Accounts Committee of the NA that Faisal Younis, the younger brother of cricketer Waqar Younis, had been appointed as a cadet pilot in PIA on bogus educational certificates.

Even before 2012, when the old pilot testing system was replaced by a digital one, there had been reports of alleged cheating, because most of the system was analogue and easy to manipulate. There are also many anecdotes informally shared by pilots who claim they obtained their licences by finding different ways to circumvent the earlier examinations process. It is worth noting that this issue is not limited to Pakistan. Even in the US there have been issues with pilots licencing tests, as well as the practical part of the testing and many pilots were told to take their tests or practical exams again.

Members of the aviation industry, pilots and PCAA staff members know that the licencing process has issues. This point has been raised from time to time. The Supreme Court taking action on the matter was significant. But the matter has been in discussion in one way or another for years.

This is one of the reasons why the Pakistani media was not overly shaken by Sarwar’s speech at first — they were used to such claims.

EGOS AND CROSSED PATHSYet, this time things were different. When the story was picked up internationally, all eyes were on Pakistan. And no one, it seemed, was ready for this sort of scrutiny. All the stakeholders from the Aviation Division to PCAA seemed to disappear in the wake of the confusion. PIA was left in the field to defend its position and speak on the issue alone.

PIA’s spokesperson, Abdullah Khan, was the only one available to speak on this issue with officials from the Pakistan Airline Pilots Association (Palpa). This is despite the fact that the Aviation Division has a joint secretary, who serves as its spokesperson. Then there is an official who handles the media. There is a public relations officer who works for the minister. And, finally, there are the minister and the secretary who are also authorised to speak to the media.

But in the immediate aftermath of Sarwar’s speech, none of them were available, apart from the minister and the PIA spokesperson. Sarwar decided to backtrack from his speech within two days, using the more careful language which had been originally recommended to him. And after that, he and PCAA backtracked on almost everything, making the whole matter even murkier and difficult to understand.

In this whole saga, there were three key players: the aviation bureaucracy, PIA and the minister. Of course, there were other players as well, but the individuals at the centre of it all were Sarwar, Malik and Jamy. After the speech, as tensions mounted, the situation reportedly reached a point where the three could no longer work together without direct intervention from the PM house.

Since the crash of PK 8303, or even before, there was reportedly a lot of friction between Jamy and Malik, but it was the crash that had them facing off against each other. In the first meeting following the crash, the gloves were off. Participants of that high-level meeting say that the PIA CEO was on a “suicide mission.” He not only took aim at the secretary of aviation, who is also acting DG PCAA, but also took aim at the prime minister. Air Marshal Arshad Malik, who is considered to be a maverick by some, said of Imran Khan, that when officials of Pakistan’s national flag carrier were demoralised and being attacked from all sides, they received a message of support from the Canadian prime minister, but not from their own prime minister.

While one wishes these dark clouds of uncertainty would finally part, the truth is that there is definitely going to be more turbulence ahead.

He then emphasised the need to appoint a DG PCAA. He also complained that the government had left them high and dry, referring to the initial meeting about reforms in PIA. The prime minister took all this into account and called another meeting. But the issue of reforms is still hanging fire.

The tussle took an ugly turn when, out of the blue, the cabinet approved the retirement of Air Marshal Malik from the air force and approved his continuing as PIA CEO without uniform for three years. He was originally appointed on April 26, 2019, on a secondment/ deputation basis for a period of three years on standard terms and conditions, as contained in JS1 4/85 (the relevant rule number quoted in Malik’s appointment letter), being a serving armed forces officer.

The July 7 decision came as a surprise to everyone, even to Air Marshal Malik, who has direct and uninterrupted access to the prime minister. By the time he found out that his retirement was on the agenda of the cabinet, it was already in session. After the decision, he laid low for a few days and was reportedly almost ready to quit. But a meeting with the prime minister changed his views and he was asked to continue, because he was told quitting was not then an option.

In some ways, Malik’s decision to stay at the helm of PIA turned the table on those who thought he would become a sitting duck out of uniform. But the gloves are now off. With there being an acute lack of trust among the key players, it is difficult to see how the aviation industry will get out of its current predicament.

LESSONS NOT LEARNJudging from the reaction of the government and its ministers to the fiasco as it unfolded, one can say they severely underestimated the consequences. They simply did not understand how their attempt to embroil previous governments in a scandal reflected internationally on Pakistan’s institutions. Most of them have been seen on news channels since then, complaining that everyone misunderstood them and the world should have appreciated their forthright approach.

The minister and his tendency of picking things to malign the opposition is a huge factor that led us to this situation. But, unfortunately, it seems lessons have not been learnt. Just recently, at a briefing about New York’s Roosevelt hotel, the minister was more interested in knowing who from the opposition politicians had stayed at the hotel and for how long. He was also very keen to name a Saudi royal who is involved with the hotel, in an attempt to score political points. People at the meeting warned him against this, as this could create yet another diplomatic row, after one that followed Shah Mehmood Qureshi lashing out at Saudi Arabia for its lack of support in Kashmir.

There are no solutions in sight. PIA has not filed an appeal to EASA. And there is no word on the development of the safety management system that is at the heart of the EASA ban. Sources privy to the debate say that the PCAA policy is to lay low and silently ride out of this storm.

But with an unstable government, and infighting between the bureaucracy and other stakeholders, the task of re-establishing the credibility is a tough one. Everyone has a different plan, and those who should have a plan are missing in action.

This is not a good omen for the aviation sector in Pakistan, which is not only dealing with Covid-19’s impact on air travel, but also the impact of the recklessness of a few. While one wishes these dark clouds of uncertainty would finally part, the truth is that there is definitely going to be more turbulence ahead.

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