Just as the people of Pakistan were still trying to grapple with the crippling effects of coronavirus, and the impacts of a lukewarm national policy for its curtailment, the entire nation has been shaken by the tragic crash of PK-8303, which crashed short of its final approach at Karachi airport on Friday. What precisely caused this catastrophe is still unclear. Was the pilot at fault? Was it equipment malfunction? Did some external factor (e.g. bird hit) result in the crash? Or was it just a natural result of poor maintenance standards by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA)? We will have to wait till the black-box data is decoded, and the resulting investigation has been completed.

One thing, however, can be concluded with some measure of certainty: that air-travel, in Pakistan, is not nearly as safe as it needs to be.

The crash of PK-8303, which is just the latest in a long and recurrent list of air-traffic accidents in Pakistan, raises important questions about the state of our aviation industry. What is the legal paradigm that governs the aviation industry in Pakistan? What is its history? What safety protocols are in place for air traffic safety and control? How many aviation accidents have occurred in the recent history of Pakistan? What measures, if any, have been put in place in the aftermath of these incidents? And how best can we make our aviation industry safer for domestic and international travel?

From a structural perspective, the non-military aviation industry in Pakistan falls within the regulatory ambit of the CAA. Being a regulator, established under Section 3 of the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority Ordinance, 1982 (the “PCCAO”), the CAA regulates all aspects of civil aviation in Pakistan, and provides “for the promotion and regulation of civil aviation activities and to develop an infrastructure for safe, efficient, adequate, economical, and properly coordinated civil air transport service” in the country, as clearly stated in the preamble of PCCAO. Furthermore, Section 7 of PCAAO constitutes a Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority Board, responsible for all functions related to the general direction and administration of the CAA; this Board, consequently, is responsible for taking pivotal decisions on behalf of the entire aviation industry of the country.

By way of background, the process for establishing a national flag-carrier airline was initiated at the time of independence of Pakistan. For this purpose, on October 23, 1946, with the help of financial contributions by Mirza Ahmed Isphani and Adam Jee Haji Daud, Orient Airways was registered in Calcutta. In May 1946, Orient Airways was granted its license, and in February 1947, Orient Airways bought three DC-3 airlines from a company in Texas, resulting in the first flight operation that was carried out in June 1947. On August 14, 1947, Orient Airways was the only airlines corporation actively involved in performing rescue operations for the newly created State of Pakistan, and soon thereafter, it started its flight operations between East and West Pakistan. However, Orient Airways suffered from heavy losses due to constant provision of pro bono services for the people of a nascent State. Consequently, the Government of Pakistan offered to take over Orient Airways, thereby paving way for the creation of Pakistan International Airlines on March 11, 1955.

In 1959, the Government of Pakistan appointed Air Commodore Nur Khan as the Managing Director of PIA. Under his visionary leadership, PIA’s culture and operations ‘took off’, and within a short span of six years, it had started to be recognised as one of the world’s frontline national carriers. In aviation circles, this period is often referred to as the “golden years of PIA”. It is claimed that Air Commodore Nur Khan would personally check the operational fitness of every aircrafts, and invest time in ensuring even the minutest details of cleanliness, staff’s uniforms and the condition of the check-in counters.

In the years that followed, PIA’s fleet was gradually increased, including induction of some of the state-of-the-art aircrafts and aviation technology. However, as political interference in the airline industry increased, the quality, standard and reach of our flag-carrier airline declined. PIA, once a symbol of excellence, is today a case study of a corporate disaster, undermined by ‘patronage’ groups belonging to whichever political government comes to power.

As a result, over the past few years, numerous airline accidents and disasters have plagued the Pakistan’s aviation industry. At an average, more than 40 bird-hit incidents have been reported, each year, over the past decade. Experts claim that such high frequency of bird-hit accidents stems from the fact that aerodromes have been carelessly situated/built near densely populated areas. Also, there have been incidences that point towards an unprofessional crew (including the time when PIA’s pilot was caught trying to fly a plane while being intoxicated), endangering the lives and safety of passengers on board.

PIA’s ATR Aircrafts have repeatedly been in the news, owing to recurrent engine failures, between 2011 to 2018. In an engineering evaluation report, submitted by PIA in 2004, serious reservations regarding ATR’s engine’s performance in Pakistani conditions were raised. However, no serious action followed. Furthermore, other reports have pointed towards unfathomable concerns about the illegal maintenance of PIA planes, leading to (at one point) the grounding of nearly half of the PIA fleet.

The tragic crash of PK-8303 cannot be viewed as a one-off incident of aviation failure. All evidence points to the fact that this tragedy had become all but inevitable for an industry that has consistently demonstrated a cavalier attitude towards maintaining the standards of its fleet as well as the training and monitoring of its pilots and crew. Pakistan has a rather elaborate statutory and legal regime that governs the civil aviation industry, and has also adopted international aviation safety standards (as a mandatory requirement for international air travel). The problem, it seems, is not within the regulatory or legal framework of the aviation industry; much like several other facets of our society, the fault lies in the implementation and adherence to these standards.

It is time that we stop absolving those in positions of power, within the aviation industry, through sham inquiries and commissions. Individuals at the helm of PIA, and especially the CAA, must be taken to task to the fullest extent and reach of our laws. Till such time that the management of our aviation industry is not held accountable for the death (manslaughter?) of innocent civilians, we will not be able to avoid future recurrences of such tragedies. And this is the least that we, as a nation, can do to honour and grace the memory of those who perished in PK-8303.