Never before in the history of modern aviation has the commercial aviation industry faced such a crippling crisis which has forced airlines to ground their fleet. Scores of airlines like Virgin Australia with a fleet of 120 aircraft and FLYBE, a British independent regional European airline with 63 operational aircraft, have collapsed because of COVID19.

Passenger airline traffic is likely to pick up only after mid-2021, while in the interim period, demand for cargo traffic will increase.

PIA should refrain from increasing its passenger fleet and consider increasing its cargo capacity.

The airline industry thrives on tourism and trust and confidence of passengers who choose to fly with them. Unfortunately, tourism faces a decline of over 80% as fears of infection grip passengers, who feel uneasy confined inside a metallic tube with recirculating air, making it an ideal environment for breeding a contagious pandemic. Heathrow London, once the busiest airport in the world, has seen a decline of over 90% passengers. PIA the national airline of Pakistan, already in a perpetual state of crisis, burdened with accumulated losses of almost Rs500 Billion, is technically insolvent in the opinion of its auditors, with liabilities exceeding its total assets. It is facing an impending collapse, surviving only on state bail-out.

After the 1971 debacle, former PM ZAB chose to sack AM Zafar Chaudhry and hand PIA over to Rafique Saigol, who put it back on track. He left, leaving it in the care of AM Nur Khan, who was given a free hand by the federal government with no political interference. Nur Khan selected a team of young educated professionals, who won passenger confidence by introducing innovative passenger entertainment and on-board flight services and offering them convenient and reliable flight schedules which captured a mix of foreign and local ethnic clients. It was Nur Khan’s brainchild that PIA invested in the hotel business, with Hotel Scribe and later Roosevelt owned by the airline.

Within months of Zia junta taking over, Nur Khan resigned because of the regime’s interference in commercial decisions, foreign postings and appointment of cronies. Thereafter PIA has been on the decline with corruption and pilferage in fleet induction, procurement of essential spares, denting its balance sheet.

Despite the fact that PIA had abundant local ethnic traffic even after the ban of alcohol on its flights, its market share was eroded by open sky policy introduced in connivance with nexus of corrupt government officials and executives of both CAA and PIA.

In the crisis following COVID-19, PIA needs to be made clean and lean, slashing top-heavy management, and avoiding the induction of more high paid executives without any commercial aviation experience. The times have changed since the days of Nur Khan. PIA no longer enjoys state monopoly and patronage as it did in the past. Salaries and employee strength must conform to financial health and undue increase in 2009 salaries when PIA posted its highest loss, need to be rationalized. Financial and administrative discipline must be enforced along with transparency and auditing of the balance sheet of PIA and its subsidiaries. Flying half-empty aircraft will only make matters worse. Marketing strategies and sales campaigns must precede the announcement of reopening flights. If the

Federal Government lacks the political will to do so then it might as well privatize the airline.

MALIK TARIQ ALI,

Lahore.