The glossy tip of an iceberg

by Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Jul 06,2020

 
 

— Dawn

A leading English daily newspaper has come up with a tragic story of Pakistan’s (small) world of aviation. All this happened in Sialkot, the sport-goods manufacturing city in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. A diabolical ticketing scheme has defrauded PIA of millions of Pakistani rupees in revenue. During the ongoing pandemic, PIA suspended much of its long-haul flight services.

When repatriation flights resumed, PIA policy strictly forbade old, unused tickets from being used. Instead, passengers had to buy new tickets — a scandal in itself, but not the focus of this story — at double the price of normal tariffs and non-refundable.

Ticket agents and airport staff were instructed not to honour the existing tickets that people had held for quite some time. It was a classic supply-demand issue with the demand far outstripping the supply. But rogue agents in the Sialkot office colluded with ticket agents to re-issue existing tickets to Milan and Paris in exchange for a passenger payout directly to them.

With the scandal now fully unearthed (we do not know how), PIA is performing a full investigation. It is estimated that Rs 8.0 million (about $50,000) was pilfered by PIA employees and that, in turn, deprived PIA Corporation of a far larger amount which could have been made if the tickets had been sold at full price.

Fake pilot licences and unscrupulous ticket agents are hardly unique to PIA. But this latest news is like rubbing salt in the wound. For the sake of its tattered reputation, PIA needs a strong leader and government partners who will fundamentally transform the image and reputation of PIA.

Whatever is actually true and I know the truth is often much more complicated than things appearing at the surface, the reputation of PIA has continued to take direct hits and there is simply no reason why this must not continue in future.

After the unfortunate crash of PK8303 which killed 97 passengers and crew members plus one person on the ground, the director general of the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority Hassan Nasir Jamy claimed that a government investigation had discovered that up to 40 per cent of pilots in Pakistan were operating with ‘fake’ licences.

This has sparked fear across the world. Vietnam and the European Union have banned PIA from its airspace. Meanwhile, the UAE is in step with independent verification of the credentials of every pilot and engineer, of Pakistani origin, now working in the UAE.

According to Jamy, 107 of the 860 pilots in Pakistan also work for a foreign airline. Per Saif Mohammed Al Suwaidi, the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority, not only will Pakistani pilots be verified, but the net would expand to aircraft maintenance engineers and flight operations officers.

A recent letter obtained by Reuters, had formally asked: ‘We would like to request your good offices to verify the licensing credentials of the attached pilots list who are currently holding UAE’s pilots licenses based on licenses and qualifications issued by Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority.’

Reportedly, Pakistan has not formally responded to requests from inquiring news sources. The entire ‘fake pilot’ issue has become a political hot-potato in Pakistan, with opposition lawmakers blaming the crash of PK8303 and revelations about the deceased pilot and credentialing on lax, regulatory oversight. Meanwhile, prime minister Imran Khan has blamed previous governments for what has now become a national embarrassment. We must remind ourselves that Imran Khan took his oath of office in 2018.

I expect that other nations which have hired expatriates from Pakistan may engage most likely in similar checks. For the sake of Pakistan and the many honourable people who work for PIA, I hope the investigation does not reveal more cases of fraud.

Investigators have been slowly sifting through debris, looking for clues to better understand exactly why the crash occurred.

Unexpectedly, investigators also unearthed cash of ‘different countries and denominations’ totalling 30 million Pakistani rupees ($186,000) in the wreckage. All the cash was found in two bags.

A Pakistani official had confirmed to Reuters: ‘An investigation has been ordered into how such a huge amount of cash got through airport security and baggage scanners and found its way into the ill-fated flight.’

The investigation has continued.

The ill-fated Airbus A320 had a listed price of $101.0 million. Reports earlier emerged that PIA had insured the aircraft for $19.7 million. But the cash onboard is certain to inspire a new round of conspiracy theories over untimely crashing of the jet. Per capita income is around $1200 a year in Pakistan. The $186,000 is 155 times the amount an average Pakistani makes in a whole year.

One of the lucky survivors was a banking executive. Could this have been his money? A weird thought, not an indication by any means.

But one small problem has remained. It is our understanding the legal limit for transporting undeclared cash on a domestic flight within Pakistan is 10,000 Pakistani rupees ($62).

Small pieces like mine will keep on dropping from the sky till the truth emerges. This may also remain an unsolved mystery, or, in the end, could mean nothing. Perhaps, this reflects the tip of an iceberg in a land where many worship corruption. However, finding heaps of cash in mixed currencies is sure to stir up the JFK-assassination-phony-moon-landing-9/11-inside-job forums… and so on, so forth.

 

Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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