Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan seems to have had no idea as to how the international community would react to his “startling” disclosure about the “bogus” licenses of Pakistani pilots flying planes around the world.
While putting the initial investigation report in to May 22 PIA plane crash in Karachi before the National Assembly, the minister revealed that a third of the Pakistani pilots, mainly from the national carrier, have “fake” licenses.
The minister’s words spread like jungle fire across the world with international news outlets running them among their top news and televisions holding debate and analyses on the subject.
The news stoked a storm in the aviation industry and even countries like Vietnam grounded pilots from Pakistan until the situation is cleared.
Malaysia has become the latest country to suspend pilots holding Pakistani licenses pending their verification, while Etihad airways said it is auditing pilots holding licenses issued from Pakistan.
The biggest blow came from the European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) which suspended entire PIA operations in Europe for six months over the pilots’ license issue while the UK, which broke up from the European Union after the Brexit, has withdrawn permits for the PIA to operate from the airports of its three key cities.
The government ministers are still defending the decision to reveal the “truth” despite the fact that the announcement had no direct link with the probe of the plane crash as its pilots did not fall in the category of those holding “dubious” permits.
Moreover, a debate has also raged in the national and even in international media questioning government’s findings on the issue, as many believe that there has been question mark over the conduct of examination after which those “fraudulent” licenses were issued and many of those who have been put in the “dubious” categories are in fact genuine and experienced pilots.
Many of these pilots are employed with foreign airlines, including those from Gulf after they were sidelined by the PIA.
Reports have emerged in the Indian media that close to 4,000 pilots in the country have “fake” permits, but it did not trigger any furor in the country as it happened in Pakistan.
The reason is that their ministers did not brag about this “fraud” at the public forums, and rather dealt with this irregularity in line with their laws and regulations.
The controversy triggered by the aviation minister statement resulted in the downgrading of the PIA to “one star” airline by the global rating website AirlineRating.com.
Critics said the government should have thoroughly probed the matter and taken strict action if any wrongdoing was found, instead, it has created an unnecessary controversy by making the matter public without proper investigation.
The pre-mature announcement also fueled conspiracy theories that it was a deliberate attempt to sell the national carrier to the blue-eyed buyers at a throw-away price.
Amidst this controversy, the cabinet committee on privatisation met to deliberate on the sale of PIA-owned Roosevelt Hotel in New York.
The opposition vehemently opposed any move to sell the prized New York hotel at the time when property prices have plummeted because of Covid-19 pandemic.
The committee meeting, chaired by the de facto finance minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, however, decided against sale of the hotel.
All 262 of the total 800 pilots in the country who have been sidelined under the “dubious” category did not belong to PIA. Some of them are working for the private airlines.
By making their names public, the government has not only brought these pilots into disrepute, as it has not yet been determined that all of them hold bogus permits, but has brought the entire aviation industry of the country under question.
Though domestically the government is putting a brave face to the blunder by saying the move was meant to reform the aviation industry, particularly the PIA, there seems to be a realisation in some quarters of the government about this blunder.
That is why, in an apparent damage-control measure, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called for a review of the EASA decision to suspend PIA flights in his telephonic conversation with the European Union representative Josep Borrell.
The PTI cannot be held responsible for the predicament of the PIA. Successive previous governments are to blame for its sorry state of affairs, but the present government in its quest for settling scores with its rivals should not blow up matters out of proportion and handle sensitive matters with the utmost caution and responsibility.
The first and foremost thing for the PTI government and its leadership is to come out of its “dharna” (sit-in) mentality. The PTI-led government must learn to behave like a government and not an opposition.
The PTI leaders have been blaming their predecessors for malaise the country is in and they are justified in doing so to an extent, but they have been in power for nearly two years and now need to show what they have done, so far, to rectify the past blunders.
If the government is serious to reform the creaky aviation industry then it needs to devise a well-thought out plan to put it on sound footing.
Because of Covid-19 pandemic the economy is already under tremendous pressure and unemployment caused by the contagion is a big challenge for the country. In such a situation, the country cannot afford any ill-conceived move as done by the aviation minister.
The government is required to expedite the verification of the under question licenses to assuage the international concerns as soon as possible and remove uncertainty that has hit Pakistan’s aviation industry. Moreover, the under question pilots and their families must also be going through brutal agony, and the government needs to clarify the position at the earliest.
It is no longer a matter of the credibility of 262 pilots; rather, the reputation of the entire aviation industry of Pakistan, particularly the Civil Aviation Authority, the licence issuing body, is at stake.
Such a situation requires prompt and concerted efforts by the government to address the issue on priority basis. The nation is eagerly waiting for the long-awaited “drastic reforms” promised by Imran Khan in the national institutions.
“We are ready for drastic changes. Whenever you go for such drastic changes, the forces of status quo will resist. But this government is ready to face (these challenges),” the prime minister said while addressing the National Assembly last week.
Time has come for you Mr Prime Minister, to turn these words into actions.
The writer is a senior journalist based inIslamabad