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Pakistan wrestles with pilots scandal in wake of European flight ban

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In this May 22, 2020 file photo, volunteers look for survivors of a Pakistan International Airlines plane that crashed in a residential area of Karachi, Pakistan.
In this May 22, 2020 file photo, volunteers look for survivors of a Pakistan International Airlines plane that crashed in a residential area of Karachi, Pakistan.   -   Copyright  Fareed Khan/AP
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In the wake of a scandal involving Pakistani pilots, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has said European countries should consider suspending any pilots licensed by that country.

This comes after it emerged a third of Pakistani pilots had cheated in their exams but were still given licenses by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA).

In a leaked letter seen by Euronews, EASA said the alleged fraud was a "grave safety concern" and recommended that any pilots holding validated Pakistani licenses should not be scheduled for operations.

The advice was addressed to aviation authorities in EASA member nations, which includes all EU countries plus Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.

Last week EASA banned Pakistan's national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), from flying to Europe for at least six months.

While PIA had not been flying to the continent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline had hoped to resume its flights to Oslo, Copenhagen, Paris, Barcelona and Milan within the next two months.

Origins of the scandal

The issue of cheating pilots came to light during an investigation into the May 22 plane crash in the southern port city of Karachi, which killed 97 people.

It led Pakistan's aviation minister on June 24 to admit that 260 of 860 pilots in Pakistan had cheated in their pilot's exams, but were still given licenses by PCAA.

The PCAA has remained silent on the scandal, sparking claims it is trying to lay low and ride out the storm.

Despite its role at the centre of the scandal, few have called for a radical overhaul of the organisation.

'Fake' or 'dubious'?

In a speech on June 24, Pakistan's aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said that one-third of Pakistani pilots have fake licenses. He added that these were obtained either by fraud or with the help of dummy candidates. The figure he quoted was 262 out of 860 pilots.

Two days later he downgraded his language from 'fake' to 'dubious' licenses.

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) said Khan's speech was “on the brink of being reckless not just for the individuals named, but for Pakistan and its ability to continue operating international air services.”

PIA 'chose to suffer'

With a government stuck in a lose-lose situation, and a divided cabinet, many industry watchers in Pakistan believe the authorities underestimated the consequences of this debacle. Pakistan's aviation regulator, the PCAA, is also missing from the debate.

In a leaked internal message seen by Euronews, PIA's CEO, Air Marshal Arshad Malik, insists that his organisation “chose to suffer rather than to defend and save the black sheep just to look nice to the world while putting so many lives at stake.”

In a letter to the airline, EASA's executive director Patrick Ky says the agency had raised six crucial "findings" with PIA. The letter doesn't list what the actual findings were, but it says that PIA managed to rectify five of them. In the case of the sixth finding, which is related to SMS (Safety Management System), the letter says the airline failed to implement the agreed action plan.

The cumulative effect of the Karachi crash and Ghulam Sarwar Khan's speech on 24 June led to the suspension of the PIA's Third Country Operator (TCO) authorisation, which is a pre-requisite for EU states to issue operating permits to foreign airlines.

How did we get here?

The issue started when Pakistani airlines, especially PIA, started inducting ex-military pilots for civil aviation.

Some of those pilots passed the statutory eight tests with lightning speed -- something that startled the candidates who were struggling to pass the tests for months, if not years.

There are allegations that this speed was possible because of corruption within the PCAA.

The previous government of Mian Nawaz Sharif had removed aviation from the control of the Pakistan's Ministry of Defence, and created a new division under a civilian minister for aviation. This minister reports directly to the Prime Minister. However, the PCAA is still run mostly by military officials who are either retired, or on active duty.

Jack Netskar, president of IFALPA says he strongly believes that the "problems can only be addressed effectively at this point with the participation of independent international bodies such as IFALPA, IATA and ICAO.”

Restructuring efforts

Malik told Euronews that the PIA has made recommendations to Pakistan's government to restructure and reform the PCAA.

"We sincerely hope that based on our appeal, steps that we have already taken and PIA’s safety index, EASA will review its decision by revoking this suspension on PIA flights," he detailed.

But with an unstable government, an embattled Prime Minister, and infighting between the bureaucracy and other stakeholders, the task of re-establishing Pakistan's credibility in this sector remains a challenge.

Euronews has reached out to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry and the Pakistani Aviation Ministry for comment.

Tahir Imran Mian is a Pakistani journalist with a specialism in aviation.