Lahore           -        The European Union's aviation safety agency said Tuesday that Pakistan’s national airline will not be allowed to fly into Europe for at least six months after the aviation minister revealed that nearly a third of Pakistani pilots had cheated on their pilot’s exams.

The move follows the grounding of 262 pilots whose licences Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan termed “dubious”.

“EASA has temporarily suspended PIA's authorisation to operate to the EU member states for a period of 6 months effective July 1, 2020, with the right to appeal against this decision,” a PIA statement said. It added that PIA would discontinue all its flights to Europe temporarily. All passengers booked on its flights to European destinations will have the option to either extend their bookings to a later date or get a full refund.

"PIA is in contact with EASA to allay their concerns and to take necessary corrective measures along with filing the appeal against the decision," the press release said.

The national flag carrier "sincerely hopes that with reparative and swift actions taken by the Government of Pakistan and PIA management, earliest possible lifting of this suspension can be expected", it added. Pakistan International Airlines spokesman Abdullah Hafeez said PIA had not been flying to Europe because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the airline had hoped to resume its flights to Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris, Barcelona and Milan within the next two months.

“It is hurting us really bad,” he said of the scandal.

An inquiry into a May 22 PIA crash that killed 97 people at the southern port city of Karachi resulted in the stunning revelation that 260 of 860 pilots in Pakistan had cheated on their pilots exams but were still given licences by the Civil Aviation Authority.

The government has since fired four officials of the regulatory agency and criminal charges are being considered.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency said it was, “concerned about the validity of Pakistani pilot licences and that Pakistan," in a letter announcing the ban.

Airline pilots and their union have raised questions about the government list of pilots with alleged dubious credentials, saying it is full of discrepancies.

Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan's announcement last week of the grounding of 262 airline pilots suspected of dodging their exams had caused global concern.

The minister said the pilots included 141 from PIA, nine from Air Blue, 10 from Serene Air, and 17 from Shaheen Airline.

The PIA said the list showed discrepancies once the airlines received it. Thirty-six of the 141 had either retired or moved out, it said. Air Blue said seven of the pilots on the list no longer worked for the airline.

The pilots and their union have rejected the list and demanded a judicial investigation.

“We don't have full details of the discrepancies with us,” said Abdul Sattar Khokhar, a spokesman at the Aviation Division. “The issue is being sorted out in consultation with airlines and civil aviation authorities.”

The Pakistan Airlines Pilots Association (Palpa) has also raised doubts about the list.

“It contains names of highly educated and qualified pilots who have passed all the tests,” its president, Chaudhry Salman, told Reuters. “We want a fair and impartial resolution to this matter.”

The action on the “dubious” licences was prompted by the preliminary report on the PIA May 22 air crash in Karachi that killed 97 people. It found the plane's pilots failed to follow standard procedures and disregarded alarms.