Dhaka, Bangladesh
Pia's Free-Fall

Pia's Free-Fall

(from previous issue) But approval didn't come easily; PIA had to write twice to the Aviation Division to have it approved from the PM. Terming it a non-issue, Tajwar "believes" this matter has been resolved and approval has been granted. But both hirings set the tone of Elahi's PIA. Hirings and firings came on ad-hoc basis, often without any justifications. In Passenger Sales, for example, General Manager Nausherwan Adil and Deputy General Manager Zubair Memon were removed from their positions without any accusation. Similarly Chief Human Resources Officer Raheel Ahmed as well as general managers Zafar Ali, Akbar Shah and Mehdi Chingezi were all removed from their positions without any charges formally being brought against them. Well-placed sources claim that those removed from service did not see eye-to-eye with the chairman on many affairs, including double promotions awarded from PG-VIII to PG-X on a single day. In fact the former human resources director, Raheel Ahmed, is said to have been removed after the chairman found out that Cyan and Qureshi's credentials had been leaked to the media. The chairman assumed Ahmed as the source of the leaks and removed him from service. Meanwhile, on the PIA WhatsApp group - which is a means of communication between senior officers - there are rumblings of dissent and dismay at how the national carrier is being run. Some senior personnel have announced that they intend to leave the airline rather than being made scapegoats for the questionable decisions being taken by senior bureaucrats, who they feel will escape accountability. THE CASE OF THE NEW YORK ROUTE If the PIA surrenders its place at the John F. Kennedy Airport, it has no chance of resuming operations to New York. Without any warning came the proclamation that the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was shutting down its New York City operations. The argument made was that the expenses incurred by PIA on flying to New York did not make financial sense to the company anymore. Five weekly flights would fly to New York and three other American cities but PIA is now considering surrendering the route altogether. With a significant population of expatriates living in the United States, this decision predictably evoked great hue and cry. On November 22, 2017, PIA Chairman Irfan Elahi appeared before the National Assembly's Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs to make the claim that, last year, the airline incurred losses of 1.5 billion rupees from its New York operations. He argued that the airline had been saddled with such losses for the past 10-12 years. When approached, PIA spokesman Mashood Tajwar explained that the route to New York involved a stopover in Manchester. This means that the cost to fly to New York also included airport and cargo handling charges incurred in Manchester. Negating the notion of surrendering the New York route, he termed it the suspension of New York operations. Notwithstanding the operational details, if PIA's official version is indeed considered, it begs the question: why can't New York operation be merged with Toronto operations, given that PIA flies non-stop to Toronto. The additional costs incurred in Manchester are a valid concern, even though the stopover in Manchester is primarily for security checks. Passengers cannot disembark at the airport while the number of new passengers from London to New York is also not significant. Meanwhile, when costs are compared between the New York route and the Toronto route, there is great similarity in the finances expended. The fuel cost is almost the same as is the crew cost (cockpit crew and cabin crew). Costs for landing an aircraft, parking and housing it are the same, and the turnaround costs (time during which the aircraft must remain parked at the gate) are also the same. Some insiders question why one route is considered profitable while the other has been shut down. Notwithstanding the operational details, if PIA's official version is indeed considered, it begs the question: why can't New York operation be merged with Toronto operations, given that PIA flies non-stop to Toronto. Official word is that Toronto itself is a profit-making route and therefore cannot be saddled with the burden of passengers heading to New York. Indeed New York is a hub that connects various flights with different destinations, some not even in the United States. Routes are not just obtained for a substantial sum of money; their approval is contingent on factors such as power connections and diplomatic relations. And once surrendered, they cannot be re-obtained within a matter of days or months. In the case of New York, a route surrendered means that flight operations have been given up for good since there are a limited number of slots available. Etihad Airways, for example, is a recent phenomenon. And when they applied to the John F Kennedy Airport for a slot, they were turned down simply because the Americans had no space to accommodate another airline. But PIA can also surrender the route in favour of another airline. Word from the inside is that this route is being surrendered to Etihad Airways, although Tajwar denies such an eventuality. "We are locked in discussions with the Americans to provide us permission to fly directly to New York," he says. "We aren't surrendering the route to any Middle Eastern airlines." THE CASE OF THE CASH COWS A new beginning comes to a crash for those associated with the PIA Premier Service. The hallmark of Bernd Hildenbrand's tenure as the chief executive officer of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was to induct new planes into the national flag carrier's fleet as he went about modernising infrastructure in the airlines. One of the services started by Hildenbrand was the Premier Service - a deluxe way to travel to London with three aircrafts acquired on a wet-lease from Sri Lankan Airlines. Six flights were scheduled for London every week, three each from Islamabad and Lahore. Unlike the regular service, the Premier aircraft was equipped with LCD screens and an expensive in-flight entertainment system with 250 channels. Business-class passengers could sleep on flat beds to make their journey more comfortable. The service was inaugurated by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on August 14, 2016. Although 3.9 billion rupees were spent on launching the service, even its experimental stage was not well thought-out. For example, the airfare for the premium service was not increased while there was just one aircraft doing the rounds and no other backup aircraft was readied. Instead a substantial cost was incurred on specialised crew, new crew uniforms, as well as new logo and branding. The Premier Service bagged 1.8 billion rupees in revenue between August 14, 2016 and December 31, 2016, according to statistics revealed by the Aviation Division at the time. The losses incurred in the same period were 2.1 billion rupees. But perhaps the bigger scam was elsewhere. The new service offered a complimentary limousine for business-class passengers, anywhere within a radius of 25 km from the London Heathrow. The usual cost for such a distance is 45 pounds but PIA were paying 95 pounds for each business class passenger. There were 25 business class seats in the PIA Premier aircraft. And so the amount paid to the limousine vendor for one trip to London was 2,375 pounds. With six flights in a week, the weekly payment to the vendor was 9,500 pounds and the monthly amounts to 38,000 pounds or 5,282,000 rupees. Here's the twist: the limousine vendor was the third brother of former ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar and PIA Procurement Director Imran Akhtar. Another case of dubious intent is that of a Boeing 777 aircraft which was acquired to fly on international routes. When inducted into the fleet, the 777 plane's original seats needed to removed and new ones installed, as per PIA's seats requirements. Elahi's PIA engaged with a foreign company for the job, deeming it undoable in Pakistan. This raised many eyebrows but according to PIA spokesman Mashood Tajwar, the dispute is over the number of planes being re-hauled by the company. Well-placed sources claim that payment of a couple of billion rupees was made in advance - against the rules and without a bank guarantee - for the job that was yet to be carried out. The job never got done, claim insiders, also alleging that a substantial amount returned to Pakistan in kickbacks.

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