Pakistan’s ailing flag carrier PIA has resumed normal operations after almost 10 days of cancelled flights following protests by staffers opposed to the airline’s proposed sale but its problems appear to be far from over.
After the government announced its intention to privatise Pakistan International Airlines, which operates the only direct flights between India and Pakistan, employees went on strike outside Karachi airport. During the protest, the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers fired into a crowd, killing a senior engineer and two more staff members.
The staff then shut down operations completely and mounted protests across Pakistan. In response, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared PIA an essential services entity, under which refusal to work would result in the arrest of employees.
“The strong arm tactics of the government brought the employees back to work but it is a temporary truce,” said Captain Sohail Baloch, head of the employees’ joint action committee.
In order to meet targets set by the International Monetary Fund, the government rushed a bill through parliament in January that will allow it to sell PIA to the highest bidder through the privatisation commission.
PIA costs Pakistani taxpayers nearly $500 million a year in subsidies as it has one of the highest employees to aircraft ratios for any airline. Apart from overstaffing, it is plagued by corruption and incompetence. There has little investment in technology and a number of questionable deals have left PIA, once considered a leading airline of the world, struggling with a moth-balled fleet and highly unionised staff structure.
Baloch said employees are willing to buy a stake in the PIA but there are rumours the government has already shortlisted a Gulf-based airline for the sale.
Sharif’s advisor on aviation, Shujaat Azeem, is believed to have played a role in plans to sell the airline. Azeem is seen as the villain by most employees.
There are many who argue the sale of the PIA will be a blow to Pakistan. “PIA is a national institution. It is our flag carrier. How can we sell it,” said Irshad Ghani, who worked as the airline’s head of marketing for several years.
Experts said the problem is not just restructuring the airline but also the sale of some its routes to Gulf carriers. “PIA has virtually handed over its market to Gulf-based airlines. They carry 70% of the passenger traffic from Pakistan,” said analyst Tariq Ali.
These deals were signed during the regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf and his prime minister Shaukat Aziz, he said.
As the government readies the sale of PIA, resistance continues to mount from various quarters. Pakistan People’s Party leader Bilawal Bhutto and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan have accused the government of selling the family silver. Khan said the process of sale is clouded with inconsistencies.