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What ails our wings

 

By Imtiaz Gul

The news, July 25, 2014

 

Pakistani airports and the national airline stand out as a microcosm of the political ineptitude, administrative incompetence and social apathy that one comes across all over the country. As the first entry and last exit point, particularly for foreigners, our airports and the national airline serve as a showcase of the rest of the country.

The airports here are run by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), an entity often headed by retired army officials and stuffed with civilians mostly indifferent to what happens around them.

The CAA is mandated to keep the airports clean, secure and accessible. One also assumes that occupants of the perks-laden top CAA positions, usually political appointments, do travel abroad and get to know how airports function ; from the ticket counter to the toilets of the common lounge to the VIP lounge. They know how violators are indiscriminately penalised abroad but turn a blind eye to those found breaching regulations here.

Prohibition of smoking, for instance, is something almost everyone violates at the airports’ arrival and departure lounge. Despite big billboards warning of penal action, most people – educated and packed in Christian Dior, Georgio Armani, Gucci, Hugo Boss suits – are seen puffing away expensive cigarette brands. No CAA official ever bothers even to reprimand them.

Among these violators are often Pakistanis working or settled abroad. On a number of occasions I had to intervene, requesting these not to violate the sanctity of a regulation. In most cases, I was given a shut-up call or lame excuses. One of the most recurring comments you come across is: Oh don’t worry about the law, this is Pakistan.

Helplessly, I looked around but nobody from the CAA was around to enforce a law that is strictly adhered to elsewhere in the world and carries heavy penalties.

Most distressing upon arrival is to see how Pakistani immigrants, settled abroad as British, American, German citizens, forget about patience and discipline and display a typical mob-mentality shortly before the immigration counter – impatience, the propensity to jump the queue under different pretexts, and the usual verbal condemnation of how bad things are here. Welcome to Pakistan, you can hear them whisper into each other’s ears.

Ostensibly, CAA top management is more preoccupied with the quest for ever more perks and privileges. They clearly don’t know what is happening at the departure and arrival lounges and whether regulations are being enforced or not. They also appear to be oblivious to the problems that common passengers face at entry and exit points probably because they themselves as well as the ruling elites transit through the VIP route for their travels.

It is indeed ironic that even under the current fragile security conditions the CAA has not devised some standard operating procedures for the non-passenger crowd that usually accompanies a departing relative or flocks the airport to receive relatives. Too many people in too small a space. And to top it all unregistered taxi drivers hover all over.

For many poor Pakistani workers, mostly headed for the Gulf States, different checkpoints before particularly the Anti-Narcotics Force, the Intelligence Bureau and the immigration, serve as extortion points. Those heading out for the first time often have to cough up a couple of thousand ruppees when officials scare them through various arguments, often threatening them that they cannot be allowed to proceed on one pretext or the other.

Out of curiosity, I have asked an umpteen number of passengers and they responded with the same story – we had to pay them.

As far PIA, fragile security conditions notwithstanding, foreign airlines – largely of Middle Eastern origin – do fly in with loads of passengers. And this shows huge business opportunities. How do you then interpret the bleeding PIA? 

Endemic delays in domestic flights are another issue; almost every domestic and many international flight runs behind schedule. A recent flight from Tokyo via Beijing, for instance, was late by more than 100 minutes. The flimsy excuse is always ‘technical reasons’. Mismanagement or bad management? And one wonders how much the airline pays in penalties for delays at foreign airports.

One wonders that if foreign airlines can depart and arrive almost always on time, what ails the top-heavy PIA? Is it the political bigwigs that cause the delay or professional, administrative incompetence or total disregard for time and passengers’ convenience? Or both? 

Successive governments have clearly used PIA as a milking cow for their cronies, as is the case with the Pakistan Steel or the Pakistan Railways. Extremely incompetent, patronage-based, politically influenced management lies at the heart of all this. How can an airline be economically viable if it issues 287,000 free tickets in 2013 (according to the acting PIA chief in an interview with a British paper).

“The fuel-guzzling 747s shuttling around domestic routes, the bloated workforce and the fraud scandals of mind-boggling ingenuity”, have been haemorrhaging the airline, which is afloat only on subsidies, mainly poor Pakistanis’ tax money. 

Why not then professionalise or privatise the CAA and the national airline instead of living with delays, mismanagement and the consequent financial bleeding?

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk