Pakistan’s national airline continues to run from one crisis to another. Malaysia’s impounding of the airline’s plane shows that unless a major overhaul takes place, Pakistan International Airlines faces a bleak and uncertain future.
By Umair Jamal
A Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) passenger plane was seized in Malaysia in mid-January due to a legal dispute involving the airline and a UK leasing company.
The plane was held back in connection with a case brought by leasing company Peregrine Aviation Charlie Limited against PIA six months ago in a UK court for not paying a leasing fee of US$14 million, according to the Kuala Lumpur High Court.
Under an interim court order, PIA was thus temporarily banned from flying two Boeing 777-200ER planes in its fleet until the next hearing on the issue later in January.
PIA has maintained that the overhead charges should be decreased because the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the aviation industry.
This is not the first time that Pakistan’s financially struggling national airline has caused embarrassment for the country. The airline has been through many scandals and last year nearly faced a shutdown of its global operations.
Pakistani national carrier embroiled in leasing dispute
The airline said in a statement following the incident that “A PIA aircraft has been held back by a local court in Malaysia taking a one-sided decision pertaining to a legal dispute between PIA and another party pending in a UK court.”
“The passengers are being looked after and alternate arrangements for their travel have been finalized. It is an unacceptable situation and PIA has engaged support from the government of Pakistan to take up this matter using diplomatic channels,” the statement said.
“PIA’s legal team will pursue it in the Malaysian court, and we hope that we will resolve this issue as soon as possible,” PIA spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez Khan said.
Peregrine had reportedly been keeping an eye on the two aircrafts in question and as soon as one of them arrived in Malaysia, it asked the Malaysian court to confiscate the aircraft, which is an appropriate action under international civil aviation leasing laws.
PIA’s management reportedly maintains that the Malaysian court didn’t take the airline’s view into account before issuing the seizure order.
But there is more to the story than the Pakistani national carrier’s logic around the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry.
As reported by Pakistani media outlet The News, Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has voiced its annoyance with PIA, saying that the airline was seemingly unware of international civil aviation leasing regulations. “When the PIA knew that [the] Boeing-777 was involved in a court case, why did it allow the aircraft to fly abroad? Wasn’t PIA aware of the fact that violating international civil aviation laws will embarrass the country?” the CAA asked.
PIA: An airline or a racket?
For decades, Pakistan’s national airline has been accumulating billions of dollars in losses and the impact of COVID-19 has only made the situation worse as hundreds of flights have been grounded. While the airline is incurring losses, its number of staff has been growing, making it the world’s second-worst airline in terms of employee-to-aircraft ratio. Currently, there are over 14,000 PIA workers for a fleet of 30 aircraft.
In May 2020, a domestic PIA plane crashed, killing 97 out of 99 people on board. An investigation into the incident established that the cause of the crash was “human error.” The airline has now experienced 10 major crashes, in addition to multiple other incidents. Numerous cases of drug trafficking and smuggling involving the airline’s staff have surfaced regularly.
Last year, PIA sacked 63 of its employees, including 5 pilots, on charges of presenting fake degree qualifications. In June, Pakistan’s aviation minister told the country’s parliament that PIA’s 262 pilots held “suspicious flying licenses” and would be grounded immediately. During the last five years, 466 of PIA’s employees have pled guilty to acquiring fake educational degrees.
In July last year, PIA was banned from flying to the EU for six months; the European Commission decided in December extend the ban. The EU ban was followed by similar actions by the UK and US aviation authorities.
Taking notice of the Pakistani pilots’ suspicious flying licenses, Vietnam’s aviation authority grounded all Pakistani pilots working for local airlines. “The head of the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) has ordered a suspension for all Pakistani pilots working for Vietnamese airlines,” the CAAV said in a statement in June 2020.
Fraud and improper flight certification practices are reportedly rampant at Pakistan’s civil aviation regulator. “I am witness to it. I don’t even have to think about it, I have witnessed it,” said a PIA pilot who spoke with Al-Jazeera anonymously about the scamming of aviation exams.
“It’s a well-known thing in the industry that you can either do it the regular way or you can pay someone to [cheat] for you,” he added. “Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority employees would put in the [data] and do the exam and mark you as whatever grade you got,” said another pilot. “So you give me [a multiple of] 100,000 rupees [US$600] and I’ll make it happen on my day off. […] They were minting money.”