Opinion: PIA – the elephant that refuses to leave the room

-File Photo

-File Photo

What do we do with PIA? We can’t scrub it clean; we can’t wash our hands off it. Staying in the skies may be a moot pointbut staying in the news is a PIA specialty. Safety record, blocked toilets, crew that gets nabbed around the world, clipping other airlines’ wings instead of its losses, and passengers boarding the wrong flight keep the great people in the news.

When that is not enough, they sacrifice black goats on the tarmac, giving the world something to laugh about in a year when trumpery in the US was the only thing to laugh about. It certainly provided a lot of material to the jokester Brad Dickson(“one of the 685 reasons why I don’t fly PIA”). If only PIA had copyrighted the photos! Some want PIA in private hands. Some want it state owned but run like a private entity. Some want it to be taken over by another airline. No one, it appears, wants to consign it to the hole that it has dug for itself – no Rest In Peace tombstone in sight.

Privatizers’ mantra is ‘government has no business being in business’. It should facilitate, and not run, businesses. Their case is strengthened by the relentless pursuit of losses by the great people: 300 billion plus and counting – and wastages continuing. One ‘professional’ CEO, who liked colours, and a lot else, incurred millions on repainting the planes that had to be re-repainted. Now they are lavishly renovating lounges that only the privileged use.

The dialectics of privatisation apart, what makes the Privatizers think a privately managed PIA won’t run into losses? After all, most national carriers are struggling (Emirates and Turkish owe their health to ‘extra-commercial’ reasons). Who will pick up the tab if the ‘strategic investor’books losses? Which leads to the next question: why does the government wish to retain 51% of the share holding? If government shouldhave nothing to do with running businesses why keep a foot in?

And what will set the privatised liner apart from the other Pakistani private airlines? Despite higher fares, and passengers’ endless complaints, PIA remains the overwhelming carrier of choice on domestic routes. Labour and political resistance wont be the only stumbling blocks to privatisation, whatever robes you dress it in (creation of limited company, separation of core and non-core functions). Leaning on the ‘social imperative’ – the less viable routes, for instance – the strategic investor will ask for specific guarantees or cozy bailout provisions. Neither may be easy to provide given the politics of it all.

State owned but run as a private sector entitythe better option? Sadly, that is a contradiction in terms. You own you manage, and with that the spoils. Quoting the scripture – public welfare, all those wonderfully well-run state enterprises around the world – wont do. Pakistan is unique. If government after government has failed to give reasonable operational autonomy and security of tenure to its civil service it will be unreal to expect it to leave a commercial enterprise – and its plums – to a competent and independent Board. State Bank is a case in point: despite all the legal provisions protecting the Governor and the Board we areyet to see a Governor survive who crossed swords with the powers that be.

Let a foreign airline take it over? Follow the example of Airlanka who gave Emirates the management long enough to do a cleansing job? Unlikely scenario in our context, given the government’s image of lack-lustre leadership and the people’s obsession to search the bluest of skies for threatening dark clouds. The Riko Diq experience is instructive: we chose to let the copper and gold deposits in Balochistan lie buried than have the Chilean-Canadian company exploit them. Quite recently we tried to woe Turkish Airlines, but both sides hastily retreated when they saw all the swords being unsheathed.

Even otherwise, what is in it for the foreign airlines? If they want to have a larger slice of the market, and a healthier bottom line, they would look at three factors: load, routes, and brand. Pakistan offers a fair load – it is already quite sizeable, and both the need and wherewithal are likely to show robust growth. In terms of routes we really don’t have much to offer, especially the ‘freedom rights’ that allow greater connectivity.

But it is the brand image that makes the Merger/Acquisition business plans falter. One look at the safety record, fleet and equipment maintenance,therevolving-door corporate culture, the bloated workforce – some with fake degrees, someleaving their duty station to provide ‘protocol’ to those with a buck to spare, rumours of brothers flying as pilot and co-pilot – and you don’t have a plan to look at. The failure of the Premier service to London, launched with Prime Ministerial fanfare only four months ago, sends a telling message.

Then there is the customer base. We just don’t bring bad air from outside; we generate more inside the plane. Our hand baggage, too bulky to fit in the overheads, is all over. And of course we pray – sometimes in the aisle. Let the wits wag that we need to pray when flying PIA.

So will we allow the sore to fester until amputation becomes inevitable; or we will just – just barely – keep it going, in the manner Faiz had predicted for the future course of the country?

It doesn’t need to remain a problem that can neither be solved nor abandoned. Let the parliament play the role that is demanded of it, instead of nauseatingly slam dunking those on the other side of the aisle. It represents the people and is expected to have a fine sense of what is good for the people, even if the people can’t articulate it. Let the future of PIA – privatize, reform or kill – be properly debated in the parliament, and drawing from the example of the ‘mother parliament’ where in special cases members can vote across party line, allow members to vote on the basis of what is best for the country and not the party boss. None of the options is pain free, but none more painful than inaction. No time for point scoring. It is time for leaders to lead.


-Business Recorder