Friday, December 16, 2011

The Pakistan International Airlines syndrome

By Rohail Salman

In 1962, PIA, Pakistan’s flag carrier, created a world record flying from London to Karachi nonstop in the shortest amount of time which was 6 hours 43 minutes and 51 seconds. The record remains unbeaten to this day. Enter 2011, and the Hajj season: one of the busiest times of the year, with an immense amount of passengers, calling for good services, crucially on time flights and a good experience. But alas, the PIA is far from the airline that it was in 1962. With the flights being delayed for an uncertain amount of time and thousands of passengers stranded in the terminals, the PIA’s inefficiency was more evident than it has been for years. And it isn’t only these delayed flights and the stranded passengers that have plagued PIA and its passengers but a number of things which include the poor condition of the airplanes, the shortage of the planes themselves, crash landings and an administration that can barely be bothered. All in all, we can say that the past 3-4 years, have easily been the worst in the history for the national flag carrier airline of Pakistan, and things do not seem to be getting better.

The ‘loss’ brigade
Earlier this year, PIA announced that it had once again suffered a loss of 10.7 billion rupees, just in the first half of the year. The cabinet committee on loss making entities has said that it might use 20 billion rupees on the condition of restructuring the airline. One of the main reasons why the debt is increasing every year for the national flag bearer is its Rs15 billion long term debt, on which it has had to pay billions of dollars of interest every year. Along with the long term debt, the short term liabilities for PIA are also increasing at an alarming rate and if not dealt with soon, will lead to more liquidity problems. In 2008, the airline’s accumulated losses stood as high as Rs73 billion and have risen to over Rs107 billion at present. Financially, it is this long term debt, and the losses that are not dealt with which is causing most other problems for the airline. There are a number of varied opinions regarding why this does exist; politics, global economy and inefficiency are cited as a few, and they all hold true.

Diverging interests
First, we will take on the problem that is cited by the Pakistani officials. In order to take blame away from themselves and the airline, the directors of PIA and the government have time and again blamed the global economic conditions for its persistent financial losses. The primary blame goes, as expected to the rising oil prices in the world and the conflict in the Middle East. True as it might be, the rising oil prices and the conflict in many OPEC countries is not the only reason why PIA is in such a sorry state. Oil prices have been on the rise for the past five years, but the rise has not been very sharp or unanticipated. If proper planning was done, and appropriate cost cutting measures were used by the airline, the negative effect of this ‘bombing in oil prices’ could have been countered much more effectively.

Politics of disaster
Other airline companies too have experienced losses in 2011 but for PIA, the same story has existed from way before the current year. Adding to the fact that the Pakistani currency is in an abyss of devaluation, the problem just doesn’t seem to get better. What I meant by proper cost cutting measures was mostly, reducing the staff. The PIA is one of Pakistan’s largest employers, with over 18000 employees within its ranks. The average staff-planes ratio for an effective airline is supposed to be somewhere around 100:1 aircraft. The PIA however has an overwhelming ratio of 400:1, clearly being overstaffed. In order to run the airline smoothly, some hard decisions have to be made by the administration and one of the most important decisions that they do have to make is to reduce the number of employees in order to work more efficiently and reduce the losses at the same time.

The sordid journey
Now we will take a look at how and why the passenger experience has decreased over the years for the PIA passengers. People have complained of soggy seat covers and messy floor carpets in the planes. There are bathrooms which seem to stink even when one is far away from them. Such aspects are reminiscent of the forms of transportation in Pakistan that are much cheaper, like trains, buses and wagons and are hardly good for people who have been paying increasing amounts of airfare. Adding to that fact is that the passengers have to deal with rattling aircraft and poor equipment, and of course the hours of waiting at the Hajj terminals. Two PIA aircraft were grounded on ‘technical grounds’ which left thousands of passengers stranded in the Hajj terminals. It is inexcusable for a national flag carrier to malfunction, and not have a backup plan for such a crucial time of the year. When the airplanes eventually did arrive, upon landing, one of the plane’s engines caught fire, causing a horrid landing at the Allama Iqbal airport, which again left the Hajjis trapped inside the plane for several hours. So the PIA ended up making an event that many will cherish for their entire lives, one that they would remember for all the wrong reasons. Not only did PIA mismanage its planes and flights, it also put the lives of many local passengers at risk when its Boeing 747 caught fire near the Allama Iqbal airport. Had it been anytime earlier, the plane might have had to make an even cruder or even fatal crash landing. Why the condition of the planes and the fleet is so, can be explained by analyzing the situation in greater detail.

Playing with lives
Due to the financial losses that the PIA has been suffering for the past few years, rather than using formal cost cutting procedures such as reducing the staff, they have resorted to play with their passengers’ lives by cutting back on their fleet maintenance and up-gradation. PIA has had a problem of maintenance and repairs for quite some time now. It is stated that the tender for the maintenance of the aircrafts has been given to a company that does not have an international reputation, and does not possess the necessary technology or skill to maintain an international airline’s fleet. It is pertinent to mention that one of PIA aircrafts was inspected at Paris Airport by the inspectors of Safety Assessment of Foreign Aircraft (SAFA) while en route from Paris to Lahore. They detected several snags in the aircraft. The organisation warned PIA to overpower the shortcomings or face the consequences. The team detected fuel leakage from one of the engines of Airbus A-310. It is further stated that PIA tends to sublet dubious and substandard companies with no international credibility and little experience for maintaining its fleet. Some former employees have even come forth with claims that high-ups of PIA have financial stake in these small and substandard companies, which is why they are favored. The obscure vendors, hired by PIA, are one of the major problems.

Vested interests, bleak future
Once again we see that the interests of the higher ups are entertained over the interests of the general populace. It is not surprising to see that such a policy exists in a government institution when the powers that be have adopted similar policies themselves. Like the country, the national airline is also losing its national credibility and with the people in power, leeching off through their vested interests, the state of the airline has been left in tatters, and it does not seem that it will be fixed anytime soon, judging by how things are going. Unless the proposed bailout does take place, the future of the national airline does in fact look bleak. If the administration does not admit that it is more than the rising oil prices and currency devaluation that is hurting them, and takes solid measures, the fleet of PIA will soon be stranded on ground, rather than operating up in the air. A change of administration is desperately needed and even though it does sound clichéd, without an administration that actually cares for the safety and well being of the people, there is little chance for the revival of PIA.

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