Since the last few weeks, the Pakistan International Airline (PIA) is in the throes of a massive institutional scandal. The gravity of the situation could be gauged by the fact that issues relating to PIA are now being discussed in the international media. The woes of the national flag carrier surfaced when on May 22, 2020 a plane crashed in the model colony, adjacent to the Karachi Airport. 97 precious lives were lost in the horrific accident. In the wake of the crash, a special Inquiry Committee comprising PAF officers was constituted to probe the incident and according to the preliminary investigation report of the Committee, the incident occurred owing to the fact that the pilots of the ill-fated plane and officials manning the air traffic control failed to follow the prescribed protocols.

Subsequently, the federal Minister for Aviation, Mr Ghulam Sarwar Khan, spoke about the salient features of the inquiry report in the National Assembly of Pakistan. Much to the surprise of all and sundry, he also made a flurry of startling revelations about PIA in his speech. He revealed that the licenses of about 40% of the airline’s pilots were dubious and that many pilots did not take the prescribed examinations themselves. Instead, they engaged some other persons who appeared in the examinations in their place. He further informed the NA that there were 860 commercial pilots in Pakistan and the licenses of 262 of them had been found to be dubious! He stated that these pilots had been grounded and that action was being taken against them. He also asserted that criminal proceedings will be initiated against them, too. He also disclosed that several pilots did not have any flying experience whatsoever!

Once the beans were spilled, all hell broke loose. The European Union Air Safety Agency (EUASA) banned PIA straight away from entering and using European airports for six months. Similarly, the UK also stopped PIA from using the Manchester, Birmingham and London airports. Other countries followed suit. This sordid episode should be seen as a ghastly manifestation of institutional degeneration in Pakistan. It also raises many pertinent questions. Did the competent authority pass unequivocal orders regarding an inquiry into the affairs concerning the pilots or did the inquiry into the Karachi plane crash itself reveal the stuff about them that was subsequently made public? Inquiries are supposed to be conducted strictly in accordance with law and approved procedures. Was this inquiry conducted as per rules and regulations? Were the pilots against whom the inquiry was conducted asked to join the proceedings? Were the accused pilots provided an opportunity to defend themselves as per law? What was the methodology through which information regarding the accused pilots was gathered? Was this information obtained in a legally-tenable manner? What is meant by the term “dubious licenses”? Were these licenses fake? Were the licenses not issued according to the relevant rules and regulations? Did the pilots not pass/clear the prescribed examinations/tests as per law to earn their licenses? Did the pilots lack the requisite educational qualifications to become certified pilots? Last but not the least, would this inquiry withstand judicial review in the relevant court of law?

It is obvious that only a thorough investigative process could answer all these important questions. In order to do so, an independent Inquiry Commission consisting of at least three members should be constituted under section 3 of the Pakistan Commission of Inquiry Act, 2017. This Commission should probe all matters relating to PIA pilots, air traffic controllers, engineers, ground staff and other officials. It should: (1) review all the rules and regulations under which PIA recruits its manpower; (2) examine whether the process of induction undertaken so far has been legal and above board; (3) find out whether the educational qualifications of this manpower are in accordance with the approved criteria; (4) confirm whether the documents of all PIA personnel had been verified as per rules before their induction in the airline; (5) investigate whether PIA has an inbuilt system of personnel training as per international standards; (6) verify whether PIA has a top-notch performance evaluation system in place that could help it ascertain the performance of its manpower from time to time; and, (7) identify those who have, at any time, been involved in any illegal activity with reference to the matter at hand. The report of the Commission should be made public and legal action swiftly taken against all culprits so that they could be brought to justice. The Honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan has also taken notice of this issue and directed PIA management and two other airline operators to submit a detailed report in this regard. The Commission’s report should, with the permission of the Honourable bench hearing the case, be also submitted to the court for its perusal. This would further clarify the matter.

The country’s honour is at stake; there is no time to lose.

Shariq Jamal Khan

The writer is a global affairs, public policy and security analyst and a senior civil servant.