Editor’s Note: Huma Yusuf is a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Many Pakistanis tempered this year’s Eid greetings with words of condolence or prayers for the victims of coronavirus and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight PK-8303.
The flight from Lahore crashed in a dense residential area adjacent to Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on May 22, killing all but two of the 99 people on board. Investigators have recovered the flight data recorder but the cause of the crash is yet to be determined.
The crash was a horrific tragedy at a time when the country is battling the mounting toll of the pandemic. But as with most things in Pakistan, it is also political.
Pakistan’s national carrier has been ailing for over a decade and now has liabilities of more than PKR 400 billion ($2.48 billion).
The institution has long suffered from allegations of corruption and cronyism. As the global lockdown in response to coronavirus took effect in March, Bloomberg identified PIA as the airline most likely to go bankrupt within two years.
Successive attempts to revamp the airline have been botched by poor management. The airline has had nine CEOs over the past 12 years. The appointment of the current CEO, Arshad Mahmood Malik, has been controversial, sparking legal battles and further skewing Pakistan’s civilian-military balance.
Malik is an Air Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force. A provincial court in December barred Malik from continuing in the role on the basis of a petition filed by PIA’s Senior Staff Association, arguing that he lacked the necessary qualifications and experience. During appeal hearings in February, Pakistan’s Supreme Court also argued that a serving member of the air force should not head the national carrier, citing business continuity concerns in the event that the air marshal was called to duty. The court bench also stressed the need for professional management of the airline.
But the Supreme Court in March ruled that Malik could continue in the post, after the attorney general intervened to assure the bench that he would not be recalled by the air force. When restoring Malik, the chief justice remarked on the dilapidated condition of PIA’s fleet, and asked – presciently, it turns out – who would bear the responsibility for any unfortunate incident.
Tensions between PIA’s staff and management are likely to be exacerbated by the tragic crash. Pakistan Airlines’ Pilots Association has challenged the composition of a government-appointed, four-member team to investigate the crash, which includes three Pakistan Air Force officers – two from the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board and one from the air force’s Safety Board.
These officers rank junior to Air Marshal Malik, raising questions about their impartiality and independence. Calls to include international aviation experts and commercial pilots familiar with the aircraft to join the investigative team are growing.
The government will feel the pressure to get the inquiry into PK-8303’s crash right – and not only because the victims’ families deserve answers. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration has to demonstrate that its backing of military management for the national carrier was a sensible decision, and not another example of kowtowing to the country’s seemingly all-powerful armed forces.
The crash, particularly in the midst of the global aviation crisis, will also revive the long running debate on PIA’s privatization. The sale of the airline has been a condition of successive IMF packages for Pakistan, and will no doubt rank high on the list of requirements for any debt relief plan that emerges from the pandemic. But it is a politically toxic topic, primarily owing to the airline’s alleged crony culture, but also because of the negative public sentiment that privatization would generate.
This is because, in a typically Pakistani twist, the airline remains an immense source of national pride. Pakistanis – especially expatriates – sing PIA’s praises. The friendly cabin crew – “great people to fly with,” as the tagline goes – the spicy in-flight meals and the evocative piped-in sitar music are still celebrated as an extension of the homeland.
And PIA’s journey is perceived as synonymous with Pakistan’s trajectory. Launched in 1955, the airline announced the growing confidence of a newly independent nation. Its commercial successes and slick advertising campaigns in the 1960s helped put Pakistan’s name on the global map.
No discussion of Pakistan’s heyday is complete without mention of the fact that the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin designed PIA air hostesses’ outfits in 1966. The straight trousers he introduced, dubbed “PIA pyjamas,” quickly became a national fashion phenomenon.
The airline’s recent woes also echo Pakistan’s mounting political and economic problems, and so it remains a barometer for national morale. As the loved ones of those aboard PK-8303 await more information about the terrible crash, the nation waits with them.