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Airports and Aviation Authority


By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse , June 30, 2014


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

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

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 penalized abroad but turn a blind eye to those breaching regulations here. 

Prohibition of smoking, for instance, is something all and sundry violate 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 comment you come across is: Oh don’t worry about law, it is Pakistan. 

Helplessly, I looked around but no body from the CAA was around to enforce a law which is strictly adhered to elsewhere in the world and carries heavy punishments.

Most distressing upon the 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 i.e. impatience, the propensity to jump the que under different pretexts, and the usual verbal condemnation of how bad things are here. Welcome to Pakistan, you can hear them whisper into one another’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 (SOPs) for the non-passenger crowd that usually accompanies a departing relative or flocks the airport to receive relatives. Too many people on too small a place. And to top it all unregistered taxi drivers hover all over, cracking dirty jokes, littering filth around.

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 when officials scare them through various arguments, often threatening them they cannot be allowed to proceed on one pretext or the other.

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

As far the 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? Almost every domestic and 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.”

One wonders that if foreign airlines can depart and arrive almost always in 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 the PIA as a milking cow for their cronies, as is the case with the Pakistan Steel or the Pakistan railways. Extremely bad, patronage-based, politically influenced management lies at the heart of all this. How can airline by the way 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 hemorrhaging the airline, which is afloat on only on subsidies, mainly poor Pakistanis’ tax money.

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

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk