The precarious financial situation of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is a pressing concern that cannot be ignored any longer. PIA’s debts and liabilities continue to mount, creating a burden that seems insurmountable. The only viable solution, in my opinion, is the swift and complete privatisation of both the airline and its subsidiary, PIA Investments, without any government or state institution interference.
There are precedents to follow in this regard, such as Air India and Malaysia Airlines (MAS), where the state decided to absorb existing liabilities and subsequently privatise these entities while retaining their status as national flag carriers. In the case of PIA, history has shown us that competent leadership can turn the tide. In 1971, when PIA was on the brink of collapse, the federal government appointed AM Zafar Chaudhry as the managing director. Under his leadership, PIA made the critical decision to reduce its fleet, routes, and flight frequency by half. This allowed the airline to recover and thrive. The turning point, however, came when Rafique Saigol was appointed with full powers and no political interference from 1972 to 1974. He then handed over PIA to AM Nur Khan in 1974, who continued the upward trajectory by expanding the fleet, routes, and frequency. Revenues soared, and in 1978, PIA Investments was established, marking the airline’s foray into the hospitality business with the acquisition of Hotel Roosevelt in Manhattan, NYC, and Hotel Scribe in Paris. Nur Khan’s vision was to utilise these hotels as assets for PIA, and he became the chairman of this subsidiary. This period marked the golden years of PIA.
However, this golden era came to an end when political interference crept in. The interference began under General Zia’s regime, leading to the appointment of individuals with affiliations rather than merit. Corruption and incompetence then took root in the management of PIA, causing its liabilities to soar to over Rs. 750 billion, exceeding its assets significantly. This dismal state of affairs is further exemplified by a shocking incident in February 2020 when an airworthy B777 aircraft was irreparably damaged during an anti-hijacking drill conducted by the ASF, contrary to industry practice.
It is evident that successive corrupt and inept managements, lacking experience in commercial aviation, have driven PIA to insolvency. To rectify this, privatisation is not just an option; it is a necessity. The government must relinquish control and allow the private sector to breathe new life into PIA. This decision should be made based on merit and the efficient utilisation of public funds, not political interests.
MALIK TARIQ ALI,