The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) crash in May that killed 97 out of 99 people on board is still fresh in our memories. An initial report says it was due to human error by the pilot and air traffic control. Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said the pilots were distracted discussing coronavirus and as a result, the pilot initially failed to perform the landing correctly when the plane scraped at the runway the first time before taking off again. In another shocking “revelation”, the aviation minister said that 262 pilots out of 860 active ones in Pakistan have “fake licenses” which he later changed to dubious or suspicious licences. It not only made international headlines but as a result, PIA grounded 141 pilots while there also are reports of Pakistani pilots in Vietnam and some Gulf countries being grounded, subject to a review.
On the other hand, Pakistan Airline Pilots’ Association (PALPA) on Saturday denied these allegations. Head of the pilots’ union said there is no truth in these allegations. According to a detailed report in BBC Urdu, the claim by the aviation minister is incorrect and the number of pilots with dubious credentials is not as high. The minister later conceded his original stance. The report explains that the examination process, which makes for about 5 per cent of the licensing process, changed in 2012. Before 2012, pilots had to give two papers but a new model of examination was introduced by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which now requires pilots to take eight papers, mostly theoretical. It did lead to some pilots failing the exams as they were quite complicated or they didn’t get a proper understanding of the scope of exams.
While many cleared the new examination process, some could not, so an environment evolved where it was made easy for pilots to cheat and some eagerly resorted to cheating, which included making others sit in their place to clear the exams for a few hundred thousand rupees. It is said that while pilots around the world get their commercial licences after being tested for their technical know-how and flying hours as well as a basic examination process, Pakistan’s new examination process was thought to be cumbersome for most of the pilots since it was laid out in a way that was not clear to those who were taking it.
This is a case of moral dilemma as well as using unfair means. Being a pilot is one of the key jobs where there are extremely high expectations of moral obligation and trust. Cheating cannot be condoned at any cost nor the concept of facilitation of such unfair means. All pilots must be investigated properly and if they have resorted to shortcuts, they must be punished. That said, if the number is marginal compared to the minister’s claim, a clarification must be issued to clear the names of Pakistani pilots. Some complain that the CAA’s role in the entire process raises some red flags.
We cannot stress enough about air safety. Hundreds of lives are at stake each time a plane takes off. The Aviation Ministry, CAA and airlines must investigate thoroughly and make their findings public. Any such inquiry must involve international stakeholders to add credibility to an embattled CAA whose own credibility is also on the line. Pilots and their bodies also need to initiate a thorough, inward-looking review process that builds trust in their own profession and shows that they are not on the wrong side of the debate.