Sultan M Hali
PAKISTAN International Airlines (PIA) has been
in the doldrums far too long due to poor manage
ment and corruption. An Airline, which once boasted to be one of the world’s foremost air carrier and established some of the other global air transport systems, went downhill because the vision of its founding fathers like Air Marshals Nur Khan and Asghar Khan was allowed to wither away. Resultantly, the flagship carrier was close to bankruptcy when the PTI government assumed the mantle of power. One of the bold steps it took was to appoint an upward mobile PAF officer to lead PIA and stem the rot. Air Marshal Arshad picked up the gauntlet but did not know where to begin. Overstaffing, air and ground crew holding bogus qualifications, ghost employees that saddled the profitability and viability of PIA, poor maintenance systems, missing inflight entertainment (IFE) systems and dilapidated aircraft along with the totalitarian rule of labour unions were some of the challenges the new management faced. To top it all, Air Marshal Arshad’s appointment was challenged in Sindh High Court, which restrained him from functioning as CEO till January 22.
Internal politics aside, Arshad, whom this scribe has had the honour to teach at the PAF Academy, has sterling qualities of management and control, which he exhibited when he was the Chairman of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex Kamra. Bold decisions were taken by him to turn around the airline, which was in a tailspin, rapidly spiraling downwards. Vested interests were keen to rundown the once topnotch airline so that it could be sold for pittance and grabbed up by vultures. Some politicians who owned private airlines, viewed PIA as competition, wanted to eliminate the air carrier to pave the way for their own organizations, when they were in power.
The removal of aircrew with fake degrees was also challenged in court. The plea taken was that university degrees have nothing to do with flying airplanes and if a pilot had a valid flying license, it did not matter if he or she had a bogus academic degree. This scribe participated in numerous TV debates on the subject, where the Collective Bargaining Agents representing the pilots removed for possessing fake degrees, were arguing that since the airline had spent so much money on the flying training of the pilots, even if they had bogus degrees, they should be retained. Efforts were made to improve the standards of maintenance of PIA aircraft, acquire airworthy platforms, improve onboard catering and enhance the hospitability of the air and ground crew. Another aspect in which PIA aircraft were lacking was the Inflight Entertainment Systems (IFE), which are systems of entertainment that provide a choice of movies, news, music and games to passengers. These are now a standard feature of modern airlines and are considered essential for long haul flights to Europe and USA because passengers–-especially families with children—become bored and need activities to keep them occupied. PIA already had the edge over competitors like Emirates, Qatar, Etihad and Turkish airlines because these had to route to Europe, USA and Canada via their respective hubs of Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Istanbul. PIA offered direct flights to destinations in USA, Canada and Europe but suffered the handicap of being devoid of IFEs.
Air Marshal Arshad picked up the gauntlet to resolve this issue and adopted the prescribed procedure to acquire IFEs for PIA flights. According to reliable sources, two companies were shortlisted: AAR International Corp (Singapore) and Avionic Solutions Private Limited (Pakistan). Both were shortlisted because they met the requisite criteria. It was an open transparent tender; its evaluation criteria and its results were both published beforehand on the PPRA website as per Rule 35 of Public Procurement Rules. The bid results, available at PPRA website, clearly show that M/s Avionic Solutions with its bid of PKR 699.916 Million was much lower than the other company M/s AAR International Corp with PKR 2.786 billion bid. It was an open tender, with financial bids opened in presence of both the parties. Given the much lower bid by Avionics Solutions (Approx. Rs 70 crore vs. Rs 2.8 billion by M/s AAR International) contract was awarded to M/s Avionic Solutions in July 2019.
This open and fair decision should have been welcomed by all and sundry but not the vested interests, who want to rundown PIA. Not only was it made a controversial issue, but flimsy objections were raised that Ms Avionics is a new company, has not been in business for long and is owned by an ex-PAF officer. The objectors pointed out that since the company is new, its provisions of IFE will be defective or unsafe for Boeing planes and M/s AAR, the Singapore based company had 70 years of experience in the aviation industry.
The detractors forget that the contract to M/s Avionics has been awarded on the strict condition that IFE system will only be accepted after due certification from international bodies like FAA (Federal Aviation Administration of United States) European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of Pakistan. Additionally, the manufacturers of the air platforms will also have to approve the reliability and suitability of the onboard system, before the IFE becomes operational. Thus their trivial demurrals must be disregarded. It is hoped that PIA once again becomes the airline, which once upheld its slogan of “Great People to Fly With” and proves to be an asset for Pakistan.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.
Sultan M Hali