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Mismanagement Galore: PIA And Its Spin Doctors Must Be Held Accountable

The PIA plane crash is not an isolated incident, but the consequence of overall negligence, lack of investment, incompetent managers, and the designs of a self-seeking ruling class claiming top positions while bankrupting the organisation, writes Xenia Rasul.

The only truth one can be certain of in this life is that all of us will meet death one day. While human beings are often comforted by being in the know of things, there is something about the nature of death – the finality of it – that one is not comforted by the consciousness of its inevitability. Death continues to surprise us, even more so when it is abrupt, and one wonders if it could possibly be avoided.

On the 22nd of May, a PIA flight PK-8303 crashed into a residential area just a few hundred feet away from the airport, killing 97 people aboard the flight. According to reports, the pilot couldn’t land the first time around due to technical issues with the landing gear, and on his second attempt both engines of the aircraft failed which sent it crashing down.

While final findings of such incidents often take months and years to formulate after thorough investigations by experts in order to avoid speculation and premature information being fed to the public, Pakistani authorities have already shown inclination towards pinning the crash on the pilot.

The government, as a matter of course, threw money at the problem thinking it would just go away. Instead of addressing structural and institutional issues as a long term policy, the government is always late to the scene with its deep pockets as the only policy solution. The bar has been set so low when it comes to government and institutional performance as well as accountability, that the public accepts and also lauds these cash handouts as a testament to the caregiving role of the state.

On the contrary, it is the crudest response to a tragedy that could have been avoided by tuning into dissenting voices, and ridding PIA of corruption and malpractice. Fires can’t be put out by money, rather, it fuels it further for it to devour and consume more people along its path.

The government’s commitment to unearthing the truth is evident through its formulation of the dubious Safety Investigation Board (SIB). The board does not consist of a single rated pilot certified to fly the type of aircraft that crashed, or commercial pilots and workers associated with the airline and aviation. The four member investigation team consists of four members, two are Air Force officers, and one is a member of the Pakistan Air Force’s safety board. While the team is off the mark considering that commercial jets require different experts than those acquainted with fighter jets, what is more worrying is the fact that the CEO of PIA is an Air Marshal himself, and the investigation team consists of Air Force officers.

The camaraderie among fellow officers, the prevalence of ‘group-think’, and institutional pressure could lead to the possibility of a skewed investigation. In other parts of world where the Chairman and the CEO of an airline would have quit in the face of a string of failures, in Pakistan colleagues of these individuals are tasked with carrying out an investigation into the incompetency of their fellows with the hope that they would be impartial. No wonder the discussion is then misdirected against the pilot who no longer can testify for himself.

The ongoing investigation has been dehumanising, insensitive, and points to the lack of people skills and empathy in organisations. People have reported receiving calls several times a day and asked if they have received the bodies of their loved ones, while others reported the mishandling of DNA samples.

A man who lost his wife and children claimed that if he hadn’t been around officials would have handed over their remains to another family. From the onset, the authorities were not clear regarding identification processes and timelines, pointing to a general mismanagement and lack of expertise in disaster management.

The crash is not an isolated incident, but is the consequence of overall negligence, lack of investment, incompetent managers, and the designs of a self-seeking ruling class claiming top positions while bankrupting the organisation. In 2019 alone PIA reported a net loss of Rs 55 billion, losing an estimate of Rs 100,000 per minute of taxpayers money.

However, dissenting voices seeking accountability have been silenced through the imposition of the Essential Services Act. On Labour Day, PIA rescinded all working agreements with employees associations, and also announced that they didn’t recognise them anymore for the sake of smooth operations. These included the Pakistan Airline Pilot Association (PALPA), Society of Aircraft Engineers of Pakistan (SAEP), Airline Cabin Crew Association (PACCA), Senior Staff Association (SSA), and Airline Technologist Association of Pakistan (ATAP). These are the same associations that represent the interests of the ground staff and flight crew, and also criticise the top management for nepotism, mishandling of airline operations, and a general disregard for staff safety.

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