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EU bans Pakistan airline from flying to Europe for 6 months over pilot licence concerns

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A Pakistan International Airlines passenger jet is parked on the tarmac at a military base in Makassar, Indonesia.
A Pakistan International Airlines passenger jet is parked on the tarmac at a military base in Makassar, Indonesia.   -   Copyright  AP Photo
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The European Union's aviation safety agency said Tuesday that Pakistan's national airline will not be allowed to fly into Europe for at least six months after the country's aviation minister claimed last week that nearly a third of Pakistani pilots had cheated on their pilot's exam.

Pakistan International Airlines spokesman Abdullah Hafeez said PIA has not been flying to Europe because of the pandemic. But the airline had hoped to resume its flights to Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris, Barcelona and Milan within the next two months.

"It is hurting us really bad," he said of the scandal.

An inquiry into the May 22 Airbus A320 crash that killed 97 people at the southern port city of Karachi alleged 260 of 860 pilots in Pakistan had cheated on their pilots' exams but were still given licences by the Civil Aviation Authority.

The government has since fired five officials of the regulatory agency and criminal charges are being considered.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency "is concerned about the validity of the Pakistani pilot licenses and that Pakistan, as the state of operator is currently not capable to certify and oversee its operators and aircraft in accordance with applicable international standards", the organisation said in a letter announcing the ban.

PIA has grounded 150 of its pilots for cheating.

But Hafeez told The Associated Press in a phone interview on Tuesday that PIA had alerted the Civil Aviation Authority — the Pakistani regulatory body that issues pilots licences — of its concerns over some of the licenses. In 2019, PIA grounded 17 pilots over concerns about their licences after one of its aircraft skidded off the runway in northern Pakistan.

"The saddest part for PIA is that we had alerted the regulatory agency and the government," Hafeez said.

He said the national airline will have a difficult time regaining its reputation and said that more than a decade ago PIA was considered one of the better airlines.

Aviation experts fear the ban by the European Union could also affect PIA flights to the United Kingdom and Canada because its aircraft will not be able to fly over Europe forcing longer routes.

"We have really hit rock bottom I am so sad to say," said Hafeez.

The inquiry into the May 22 crash of PIA flight 8303 in Karachi blamed pilot error saying the pilot came in to land too low, ignoring warnings from the air traffic control tower, insisting he could manage.

The plane hit the runway and took off again but the pilot's engines were damaged. The inquiry also chastised the air traffic controller for not telling the pilot that the engines were damaged.

After the aborted landing, the aircraft was in the air for 17 minutes before crashing into a crowded neighbourhood on the edge of Jinnah International Airport when both engines gave out. Two passengers survived and a 13-year old child on the ground was killed.

According to the cockpit voice recorder found later among the plane's debris, the pilots had been discussing the coronavirus throughout the flight, which had apparently affected their families.

Pakistan's aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan last week told reporters that out of the 262 pilots who had cheated on their licences, 141 worked for PIA, which employs 450 pilots. That's more than a third of the workforce. The remaining pilots worked for private airlines.

Countries take action in response to the safety failure

Since the disclosure, many Pakistani pilots working for other countries' airlines — including Pakistan's allies in the Middle East — have been grounded while their licences are reviewed.

The Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam (CAAV) announced on Monday that they suspended 27 Pakistani pilots that have been operating on Vietnamese airlines until their credentials have been cleared under new guidelines. Pakistani journalist Gul Bukhari reported that Kuwait Airlines suspended Pakistani-origin staff as a precautionary measure too.