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EU safety ban – Will PIA regain its lost glory?

PIA increases domestic flight operations

Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar has expressed hope that the ban on the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to operate flights to and from the European countries would be lifted soon.

The ban on flight operations have not only tarnished Pakistani’s image but has caused billion worth losses for the national airline which have already been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Europe retains ban

Earlier his month, the European Commission has decided to retain the six month long ban on PIA operations in its member countries and asked the country’s aviation authorities to remove safety deficiencies and improve the whole process of issuing licences to commercial pilots.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) had suspended the authorisation for the PIA to operate in European Union member countries for six months in July 2020.

The ban was soon followed by similar action by the UK and US aviation authorities, crippling the PIA which was already suffering in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

The EU had also put Pakistan on notice showing concern over the issue of pilots’ licences citing the aviation minister’s speech on the floor of parliament that one-third of pilots had bogus licences.

The EU Air Safety Committee (ASC) has deliberated on the situation and confirmed a continued concern over the measures taken by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) over suitable corrective measures to prevent re-occurrence of the same or similar safety deficiencies.

The EU said that concerns persist about PCAA safety deficiencies including pilot licencing areas, application and oversight of safety management systems and the establishment of reporting system. The European Commission and the ASC noted the willingness of the PCAA to address the concerned but retained the ban on the national airline.

What has changed?

Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar has expressed hope that the ban on the PIAto operate flights to and from the European countries would be lifted soon. The aviation minister said the concerns raised by the EASA over the safety standards and licences of pilots have been addressed.

The EASA had expressed its satisfaction over certain steps taken by the Civil Aviation Authority to improve the situation and said a further audit by the agency’s officials was imperative to revoke the ban.

The startling revelations came as the aviation minister presented the interim report on the probe into the May 22 PIA plane crash. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) had expressed concern over the “serious lapse in-licensing and safety oversight by the aviation regulator”.

EASA had written a letter to PIA and said the agency had reviewed the material provided regarding safety management system and found it satisfactory and sufficient as a first important step. It said it would conduct an audit of the third country operator when it would consider the lifting of a suspension of PIA operations when the conditions were met.

The EASA said the investigation conducted by European Commission on the issuance of professional licenses was still ongoing which indicated that there was a possibility the audit would not have the expected positive results.

PIA reforms and retirement plans

PIA is making of pilots showing poor performance as the national airline plans to retire them under mandatory separation scheme (MSS) after the expiry of the voluntary separation scheme (VSS).

PIA’s Director Flight Operations (DFO has been directed to make a list of pilots who have consistently shown poor performance in flying and have safety issues in line with the training policies.

PIA will force pilots to retire under the MSS scheme expected to be launched in January 2021. PIA has already extended the time limit of the voluntary separation scheme (VSS)  for its employees and has already received Rs12 billion from the federal government.

More than 1,300 PIA employees have submitted applications seeking early retirement under the scheme. The airline has also decided to fire 300 flight attendants who are either physically unfit or incapable of performing their duties.

The airline has also compiled list of employees that are to be sacked include 70 pilots who cheated their tests. The aviation body’s inspection team has raised objection against the pilots, while 44 other pilots who availed out of turn promotions will also be sacked.

Can PIA return to the skies?

The PIA has been banned effectively from Europe and the United States while its flight operations have been reduced from the various destinations in the Middle East, South East Asia and across the world.

Unsurprisingly, PIA has opposed the government’s decision to allow Virgin Atlantic and British Airways flights from Pakistan and decided to raise the issue at the highest level.

Virgin Atlantic launched its flights for Pakistan earlier this month with its maiden flight from Manchester landing in Islamabad on December 11. It is the second UK airlines to operate in Pakistan after British Airways.

The national carrier had been facing problems because of the European Air Safety Agency ban and has been affected financially and has opposed handing over the London and Manchester routes to the foreign airlines.

The PIA should address the concerns raised by European Union and other aviation authorities rather than stifling competitive and the customer right to choose.  It is still a long way before the PIA can regain its long lost glory and soar back into the skies