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40% of Pakistan’s Active Commercial Pilots Have Bogus Licenses, Aviation Minister Says

Flag carrier PIA scrambles to defend credibility

[Islamabad] Pakistan’s national carrier is reeling from revelations that, according to a government review, a third of its pilots had invalid credentials or had someone else take licensing exams for them.

“With immediate effect, PIA management has decided to ground at least 141 pilots who were carrying alleged bogus licenses,” Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez Khan told The Media Line on Friday.

Federal Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan revealed the license scam a day earlier, while presenting the preliminary findings of a probe into the May 22 crash in Karachi of PIA Fight 8303, which killed 97 of the 99 persons on board and one person in a densely populated neighborhood just under 2 miles from the city’s airport.

According to the review, 262 of Pakistan’s 860 active airline pilots hold fake licenses or cheated on exams. More than half of them are from Pakistan International Airlines.

“There are 860 active pilots in the country and 262 pilots did not sit for the exams; someone else sat the exams for them,” Khan told the National Assembly. “Forty percent of licenses are fake and the pilots don’t have the required flying experience.”

The minister added that 753 of the pilots work for Pakistani airlines, while 107 serve with foreign carriers.

There are 860 active pilots in the country and 262 pilots did not sit for the exams; someone else sat the exams for them. Forty percent of licenses are fake and the pilots don’t have the required flying experience

Khan told reporters in Islamabad on Friday, “The Civil Aviation Authority’s senior Joint Directors Asif Ul Haque and Faisal Mansoor Ansari along with three others were found guilty in the fake-license scam, and all of them are suspended immediately.

“The aviation ministry is consulting its legal advisors about referring their cases to the Federal Investigation Agency for criminal proceedings,” he said. “Three to four outsiders and some officials from Civil Aviation’s IT department were also involved in this mega-scandal, and they will face criminal charges,” he continued, without sharing details.

A “list of 141 suspicious license holder pilots has been sent to Pakistan International Airlines chief executive officer, requesting that they must not be allowed to fly further,” Khan told the press conference.

He also said that “after the initial inquiry, 28 pilots have been found guilty of having a bogus license. The federal cabinet will decide the fate of those pilots, who have been proved guilty of holding fake licenses.”

“All this happened during 2010-2018. It started under the Pakistan Peoples Party’s tenure and continued till the caretaker [administration] set up in 2018, [ahead of the election won by current Prime Minister Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party]. We are cleaning up the filth created by the past governments,” the aviation minister said.

Syed Zulfi Bukhari, special assistant to the prime minister for overseas Pakistanis and chairman of the National Tourism Board, told The Media Line: “PIA was systematically destroyed with decades of nepotism and political hiring. For the first time, the Imran Khan-led government has unearthed the truth.”

He denied that the “PIA scandal will have any negative impact on the country’s tourism industry.” He added, however, that the “corona pandemic has badly damaged the aviation industry as well as the tourism industry across the globe.

“The government is monitoring PIA’s issues seriously and meticulously. Hopefully, we will soon be able to restore the lost credibility of the national airline,” Bukhari said.

PIA was systematically destroyed with decades of nepotism and political hiring. For the first time, the Imran Khan-led government has unearthed the truth

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a member of the National Assembly for the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and a former prime minister, told The Media Line, “The federal aviation minister’s statement has badly affected the reputation of the country’s aviation industry.

“As a regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority conducts pilot tests every six months, which are being conducted in an integrated and systematic computerized manner,” he said.

The former prime minister said he feared that “something was amiss in the IT department of the Civil Aviation Authority.

“If some pilots are found guilty of forgery, they should be fired and their licenses should be canceled,” Abbasi said.

Nafisa Shah, a member of the National Assembly and the PPP’s central spokesperson, told The Media Line, “The minister’s statement on the floor of the National Assembly was irresponsible and false. We demand his resignation.

“The minister’s statement regarding fake licenses of pilots has caused much damage to the country,” she said. “The minister has scandalized the PIA and Civil Aviation both nationally and internationally.

“The minister has failed to raise the morale of PIA employees at a very stressful time,” Shah said.

PIA spokesperson Abdullah Hafeez Khan told The Media Line that the 141 pilots “will remain suspended till the verification process is completed.

“There is no doubt that the sudden grounding of such a large number of pilots will adversely affect our flight operations, but there will be no compromise on the safety of passengers as well as the safety of national assets,” he said.

On Saturday, PIA Chief Executive Officer Arshad Malik, who is also an air marshal in the Pakistan Air Force, sent a letter to Paul W. Jones, the US ambassador in Islamabad. In the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by The Media Line, Malik wrote, “Pilots holding dubious licenses have been grounded for the safety of passengers.

“The Pakistan government will hold a complete probe into the matter of fake licenses. The government has made it mandatory for all the pilots to keep their original license with them during domestic and international flights,” Malik added.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Airlines Pilots Association strongly rejected the federal aviation minister’s statements about fake or dubious licenses.

Capt. Chaudhry Salman, the head of the association, held a news conference in Karachi on Saturday and said, “There is no truth in these allegations.”

Salman confirmed that 141 of his fellow pilots had been grounded by PIA a day earlier but said the pilots accused of obtaining “fake pilot licenses” were ready to defend themselves in any forum.

Abdul Rehman Tiwana, a Lahore-based political and defense expert, told The Media Line, “The leading cause behind the destruction of the national airline’s global image is the appointment of nonprofessional persons on a purely political basis in the past decades.

“The main objective of such ‘out of merit appointments’ wasn’t to [properly] run the organization but to accommodate the favored people,” he said. “This resulted in overstaffing of national flag carrier and ultimately caused huge financial damages to the airline.

“PIA had to bear financial losses of 1.8 billion rupees [about $23.8 million] due to corruption and payment of salaries to the ghost-political employees,” Tiwana claimed.

“Individuals with no knowledge of finance and management occupied the administrative posts while technical positions were occupied by auto-mechanic type people,” he said.

He further told The Media Line: “It is on the record that Senator Mushahid Ullah Khan of the Muslim League (Nawaz), as chairman of the Senate Aviation Committee, strongly opposed the action against pilots and other staff having fake degrees and dubious licenses.

“For the survival of the country’s flag carrier, the authorities need to fire and prosecute such employees, and even former aviation ministers and chief executives should be brought to the court of justice,” Tiwana said.

Captain Najam Ul Hussan Zaidi, an Islamabad-based former director of operations for PIA, told The Media Line that “in the past, whenever PIA pilots went on strike to force their demands to be met, Pakistan Air Force transport pilots played a key role in continuing PIA’s operations.

“PIA’s chief executive Arshad Malik is a serving three-star general in the Pakistan Air Force, so he knows very well that what strategy would be adopted in case of any emergency situation [created by PIA having a shortage of pilots],” he said.

“The Pakistan Air Force has its own logistics fleet of C-130, Boeing 737, Boeing 707 and Fokker aircraft. These aircraft are flown by air force pilots while air force technicians take care of these aircraft. So if needed, air force serving or retired transport pilots would easily fill the gap,” he added.

“The major advantage of air force pilots over a newly inducted commercial pilot is that the air force transport pilot already has several thousand flying hours to his credit,” Zaidi said. “Many airlines hire retired air force pilots, as the training costs are lower than when putting a novice through the commercial pilot license process,” Zaidi said.

Putting passengers’ lives at risk is a major crime

The nation’s top court also took notice of reports that scores of pilots with invalid licenses are flying planes.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the heads of PIA and the privately owned Airblue and Serene Air to submit reports verifying the licenses of the pilots.

Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed also demanded a reply from the director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority within two weeks, directing him to explain how these fake licenses were issued and what action was being taken against those who issued them.

“Putting passengers’ lives at risk is a major crime,” the chief justice said.

The Geneva-based International Air Transport Association (IATA) is also examining the license issue.

Kalliopi Lazari, IATA’s assistant manager for corporate communications, told The Media Line: “We are following reports from Pakistan regarding fake licenses, which are concerning and represent a serious lapse in licensing and safety oversight by the aviation regulator.

“IATA is trying to obtain more information on the matter,” she said.