Fake pilots and heroin smuggling; PIA is unfit for purpose

Once a well-respected international airline with a burgeoning reputation, recent years have seen Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) condemned as a corrupt organisation; bereft of real leadership and values. In its formative years in the mid 1980’s, Emirates sought help from PIA to procure planes and train its staff. In the decades that followed, the two have been on diverging paths. As Emirates has dominated the industry, PIA has become an embarrassment to the people of Pakistan.

Recently, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Aviation had the unenviable task of informing parliament and thereby the rest of the world that up to 30% of pilots in Pakistan had been flying on fake licences. The shocking figure was brought to light as a result of a government probe to investigate the causes of recent airline crashes. Ghulam Sarwar Khan, the aforementioned Minister for Aviation, attempted to steady the ship by grounding all suspected pilots. He also revealed that the investigation found over 250 Pakistani pilots had cheated on the required exams or had someone else sit them on their behalf.  

Confidence in the PIA has been on a steady decline following a series of crashes and as a result of being embroiled in multiple controversies. The revelations that civilians had been unwitting passengers on aircraft being flown by fraudulent pilots has ignited fresh rumours and fuelled further distrust in the PIA. A spokesperson for the PIA responded by saying fake licences are commonplace across the airline industry in Pakistan and not just within PIA. 

The most recent incident occurred in May 2020. Flight PK-8303 was carrying 92 passengers and 8 crew when it crashed into a residential neighbourhood near Karachi International airport. Only 2 people on board survived, making it one of the most catastrophic disasters in Pakistan’s aviation history. The plane came down less than a mile short of the runway, giving rise to dense plumes of smoke as it crushed several houses on impact. Television footage showed parts of the plane strewn across the streets, as residents scrambled to get to safety. 

Firefighters spray water on the wreckage of a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) aircraft after it crashed at a residential area in Karachi on May 22, 2020
Firefighters spray water on the wreckage of a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft after it crashed at a residential area in Karachi on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Rizwan TABASSUM/AFP)

Ghulam Sarwar Khan, Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Minister, confirmed that the pilot of the aircraft made a failed landing attempt on an earlier approach. He told reporters the plane’s engines touched the ground three times on the first attempt at landing. “The pilot never announced his landing gear wasn’t opening. He haphazardly touched the engines thrice with the ground,” Khan said. “All marks are present [on the runway]. He was not at the proper height … Control tower informed him you aren’t at the required height, lower your altitude,” he said, adding that the pilot replied, “I will manage.” Shortly after the failed attempt, the pilot reported problems in maintaining altitude, then stating that both engines had failed.

Khan did not confirm whether the two pilots Flight PK-8303 had fake licences. The report states that the pilots were in conversation throughout most of the flight, mostly discussing the coronavirus pandemic and repeatedly ignored warnings from air traffic controllers before the fatal crash. “The pilots were discussing corona throughout the flight. They were not focused. They talked about the coronavirus and how their families were affected,” said Khan. The report confirmed that the first landing attempt caused irreparable damage to both engines as the pilots had failed to lower the landing gear beforehand. The pilots managed to pull the plane back into the air, albeit briefly before the engines failed and caused the plane to crash. 

PIA’s safety record has been a concern for many Pakistanis. It has now witnessed 10 fatal crashes in addition to multiple further incidents where passenger lives were at risk. The airline is a stark outlier when comparing safety records with other carriers. When adjusting for the number of passengers and distance travelled, it ranks as the worst airline in terms of passenger safety. The statistics also highlight that PIA’s safety record has been getting steadily worse since its inception. 

This graph shows how PIA is an outlier when comparing safety records of major airlines.
Airline safety data from fivethirtyeight.com

The PIA is majority owned by the Pakistan government and thus lawmakers bear a degree of responsibility when it comes to its functioning. There have been accusations of corruption and nepotism levelled at those in charge. PIA’s management and corporate hierarchy is dominated by ex Air Force officials prompting critics to label the organisation as a retirement home for the military. Moreover, these questionable appointments also extend to government officials hiring family and party members to executive positions. 

Fraudulent behaviour is also ripe at the corporate level with over 400 employees recently being found guilty of having fake degrees. Having unqualified employees at these critical decision making levels is a recipe for disaster. And so it has proved for PIA. The company has been steadily making a loss since the turn of the millennium, being frequently reliant on government subsidies and bailouts to survive. 

Even beyond its borders, PIA has found itself at the centre of embarrassing controversies. On multiple occasions, staff have been stopped at border security checks and found to have been smuggling heroin. In 2014, a PIA air hostess was arrested in Italy on possession of illegal drugs. In 2016, 17kg of heroin was seized on a flight bound for Saudi Arabia. In May 2017, on a PIA flight from Islamabad to London, heroin was found hidden in different panels of the plane. Later the same week, officials seized 20kg of heroin from another aircraft heading to London. The regularity of such incidents has increased suspicions of a drug trafficking ring within PIA with parties involved in Pakistan and various western destinations. 

PIA advertisement flyer circa 1962 showing the companies' pride in having the best pilots and air hostesses.
PIA advertisement flyer circa 1962

Although pre-flight checks are routine procedure and sniffer dogs are also used, the presence of heroin in such large quantities indicates the complacency and possible complicity of PIA officials in international drug trafficking. Poppy crops are grown in large quantities across southern Afghanistan; an area heavily under the influence of insurgent groups. Some are said to have the tacit support of officials across the border to be able to smuggle heroin into Pakistan and via infiltrating companies like PIA, into the West. Following an investigation into the May 2017 incidents, 16 employees had their employment terminated by the PIA. 

A culture of corruption seems endemic within the organisation. An audit earlier this year revealed financial irregularities totalling over $35 million, including over $4 million paid to a mysterious company that did not exist two months prior. Recently, the Supreme Court upheld a decision to suspend the CEO, following allegations of gross financial mismanagement. But it will take more than changing the person at the top to bring about a lasting change in culture.  Having unqualified pilots endangering the lives of civilian passengers is unacceptable. Even more so when the airline in question is associated with international drug trafficking. With PIA now banned from flying to Europe for the next six months, the international community is beginning to see what Pakistanis have been witness to for too long. PIA is unfit for purpose.