PIA and all airlines regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority have been banned for six months from July 1, 2020 by the European Aviation Safety Agency from its airports. The decision should not, however, come as a surprise: just nine months earlier, the European regulator had warned PIA it had concerns over safety and the airline had said it would work on them.
On June 13, 2019, two technical consultations were held in Cologne at EASA’s office with a PIA team, including CAA officials. This was part of an agreed upon plan for continuous monitoring. Another meeting was held on September 3, 2019 when a six-point Corrective Action Plan was mutually agreed upon. The plan had to be implemented to EASA’s satisfaction. (EASA had granted PIA TCO or Third Country Operator authorization back in May 2016.)
AM Arshad Malik was the chairman of PIA when these meetings were held. He was aware that five Corrective Action Plans were implemented but there had been no progress on the sixth which related to the Safety Management System (according to the ICAO Chicago Convention to which Pakistan is a signatory). It was PIA’s failure to implement the Corrective Action Plan within the timeframe which resulted in the sixth item being raised to Level 1.
Level 1 means immediate implementation, failing which a ban follows.
All airlines regulated by the CAA must understand that compliance with ICAO, EASA, FAA recommendations and directives is mandatory and not optional, especially when an operator has agreed to a corrective action plan. In this case, both PIA and CAA were warned nine months prior to the ban. On May 24, 2020, PIA was given time to implement the sixth corrective action plan by June 17, 2020 and it was made clear to it in writing that the penalties would be imposed by June 26, 2020.
EASA expressed grave concerns after initial findings of the PK-8303 crash on May 22, 2020. It said it showed “successive breaches of multiple layers of safety defences in the safety management system” and said it had concerns that the Safety Management System “is not achieving its primary objective”. It took note of Pakistan’s aviation minister informing Parliament that 260 out of 860 pilot licenses issued by the CAA are “fraudulent” and therefore, “Pakistan, as the State of Operator, is currently not capable to certify and oversee its operators and aircraft in accordance with applicable international standards”.
In response, on June 28, 2020, PIA asked for more time, which was not given, because in EASA’s opinion “sufficient timeline to eliminate the issues (nine months) has already been given” and an “extension of the CAP implementation deadline from May 24, 2020 to June 17, 2020” was given.
There was no urgency, nor any need to play to the gallery, for the Minister for Aviation when he made public the initial report on the PK-8303 crash.
Instead, he should have left the matter to the investigation team, to make a statement at an appropriate time after a thorough probe. It is within the powers of CAA director-general to cancel or suspend any license issued by them for any irregularities committed by a license holder. There was no need for the minister to go public and create another crisis.
The PIA chairman should not have written a letter to foreign embassies, informing them that 30% of PIA pilot licences were fraudulent. This prompted the US Transport Safety Board to cancel permissions to even special flights allowed to repatriate stranded Pakistanis.
PIA does not have the jurisdiction to issue a license, nor does an airline have the tools to verify these licences which can only be done by the CAA. PIA’s chairman should have focused on showing compassion to the next of kin of those who died in this tragic crash. He should have focused on the need for an independent investigation with no conflict of interest. The national carrier needs to put its own house in order by sacking all those who submitted fake degrees when being recruited, and reinvestigate any irregularities in tests for initial recruitment within PIA as was done by AM Mushaf Ali Mir in 1995-96.
There seems to be an inherent problem emanating from a lack of experience in dealing with international regulatory agencies. These agencies require compliance with recommendations. If airlines fail to do this, they can face complete or partial bans, if in the opinion of the regulator, noncompliance may lead to compromises on flight safety. Unlike military aviation, which works on a command and control regime for any mission, commercial aviation is subject to regulatory control of not just the civil aviation of the country of registration but also regulations of every country whose airspace they overfly or land enroute.
CAA Pakistan is one of the most financially viable state-owned enterprises and it must develop the capacity and capability to perform its regulatory duty, according to ICAO regulations. (All commercial aviation passenger and cargo flights are required to operate according to ICAO regulations.) The CAA should be free of political or bureaucratic interference and staffed with qualified and well-experienced commercial aviation professionals with no conflicts of interest. If this had been the practice, then all airlines under CAA’s jurisdiction would not be subjected to frequent international scrutiny and penalties, such as the recent EASA suspension. Similarly, it is time the Federal Government understands that it takes more than pilot skills to manage a service-oriented industry such as a commercial airline, in a competitive environment, with market forces requiring that passengers be provided all facilities and even pampered to retain revenue-paying clients.
PIA has the right to appeal in writing to EASA within two months of the decision after paying a fee. The ease with which airlines have managed to get their way with the CAA has spread a culture of non-compliance which is the root for all ills that afflicts this industry.
The writer joined PIA in 1975 as a Flight Engineer. He retired in 2010. He was the President of Flight Engineers National Association and a member of the General Council of International Transport Federation.