In 2018, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight PK517 skidded off the runway at Panjgur Airport, injuring none. During the investigation, it was found that the test date on the pilot’s license fell on a public holiday, so it would not have been possible to complete the test on that day. This anomaly ignited an investigation into the legitimacy of Pakistani pilot licenses across the country, and investigators have since found that 30% of licenses are fraudulent. Now, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has called out Pakistan for not addressing Significant Safety Concerns (SCC) – an audit finding that indicates a country is failing to provide sufficient safety oversight. As a result, the agency has said that if Pakistan does not meet the international standards of pilot licensing, it risks being barred from operating in 188 countries.
262 Fraudulent Licenses
In June, during his preliminary report of the May 2020 PIA crash, Pakistani Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan revealed the news of fraudulent licenses. He explained that 262 of the country’s 860 pilots had fake licenses that were obtained by falsifying documentation, cheating on exams or paying others to take tests for them. The 262 “dubious” pilot credentials include 141 from PIA, nine from Air Blue and ten from Serene Airlines, with the remaining 102 licenses held by private and charter pilots. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expressed concern over the findings, calling it “a serious lapse in the licensing and safety oversight by the aviation regulator.” The minister did not disclose if the pilots from the May crash held fake certificates.
The scandal led to the grounding of all pilots holding questionable licenses and the firing of five top officials at the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA). In a September cabinet meeting seen by Reuters, it was revealed that 82 of the 262 pilots are under investigation by Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA); however, it is unknown if the 180 remaining pilots have been cleared of wrongdoing.
The ICAO also told Reuters in an email that if Pakistan does not address the safety concerns, it would “actively notify other countries about them.”
Now, ICAO has sent another letter to the PCAA, dated Nov 3, that pins Pakistan as one of eight member states that failed to address safety concerns outlined by the agency. As reported by Express Tribune, ICAO believes Pakistan is failing to uphold acceptable safety standards in regards to pilot licensing and training and has issued a “serious warning” to the PCAA. If the agency fails to address the significant safety concerns and work with airlines and other federal agencies to improve its licensing standards, then Pakistani airlines face being banned from 188 countries.
In response to ICAO’s warning, a Pakistan Airlines Pilot Association (PALPA) spokesperson said, “This will have serious consequences and could be a total disaster for Pakistan’s aviation industry. PALPA had been raising the issue since June 2020, but unfortunately, it was neglected by the authorities concerned.”
“PALPA had forwarded several options to revamp the system in accordance with the international practices and also given a presentation,” the spokesperson continued.
Meanwhile, PIA has tried to shed doubt on the allegations, claiming that many of the pilots were long retired or even deceased. However, Khan has made it clear that the safety of the country’s aviation industry is his priority, stating, “These 141 pilots will not be allowed to fly aircraft. Some people say our actions will have a negative impact on the reputation of Pakistan International Airlines but we are taking these measures to ensure the safety of passengers.”
Pakistani Airlines Already Banned From Many Nations
In the wake of the findings announced in June, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) suspended PIA operations in the EU for six months beginning July 1. Furthermore, Vietnam suspended 27 Pakistani pilots working for Vietnamese airlines. Of the 27, 12 were active, while the remaining 15 had expired contracts or were on leave due to the coronavirus. The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) said the pilots will remain grounded until their documentation is reviewed.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has barred PIA from operating in the country, and the United States has banned all Pakistan-based carriers from flying at U.S. airports. In July, the Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Pakistan from a Category 1 rating to a Category 2 country, stating, “Air carriers from countries with Category 2 ratings are not allowed to initiate new service to the United States, are restricted to current levels of existing service to the United States, and are not permitted to carry the code of U.S. carriers on any flights.”