Once upon a time there was a great airline | Pakistan Today

Once upon a time there was a great airline

  • Once things were different

Once upon a time there was an airline called PIA that was known by the slogan ‘Great people to fly with.’ It really was a good airline.

It is said that that line which became the flag carrier’s advertising slogan was suggested by Pakistan’s sports columnist Omar Kureishi who also worked for the airline. It was echoed by Jacqueline Kennedy when, as the First Lady, she flew from Pakistan to London. When she was leaving the aircraft she hugged the pilot, and when someone asked her what her flight had been like she said they (PIA) ‘were great people to fly with.’

The line-up on the tarmac shows a confident, smart air stewardesses, and a male pilot returning a skirt-clad Mrs Kennedy’s hug. It did not cause the end of his career and the world did not collapse. Those were different times indeed.

A look back at Pakistan International Airlines is nothing but an exercise in bitterness.

The airline that we were once so proud of and that now makes us hang our heads in shame (the story of Pakistan) started life in 1946 as Orient Airways with financial help from Mirza Ahmad Ispahani and Adamjee Haji Dawood, two of Pakistan’s wealthiest businessmen. It was the year before Pakistan came into being, so the headquarters of this fledgling airline was Calcutta (now Kolkata), one of British India’s major cities. Later, when Pakistan came into being headquarters shifted to Karachi. In 1955 Orient merged with PIA and became PIAC (Pakistan International Airlines Corporation). It started international operations the same year.

The bit about dubious licenses is not hard to believe if one places the issue alongside the car driving licenses held by the people of Pakistan. Raise your hands all those who have a kosher license, obtained by taking a test?

The young airline achieved many firsts. As Orient Airways it was the first airline with a Muslim ownership in British India. It was the first Asian airline to operate jet aircraft, and in 1964 it became the first non-communist airline to fly to Mao Zedong’s China, and the first non-Soviet airline flying non-stop from Moscow to Europe. Much later in 2005, PIA made the world’s longest flight by commercial aircraft (a Boing 777) from Hong Kong to London. The flight lasted all of 22 hours and 22 minutes.

PIA also provided assistance to other airlines around the world and was mainly instrumental in setting up Emirates, now a well respected airline based in Dubai.

Air Marshal Nur Khan became Managing Director of PIA in 1959 and the following year PIA became a financially profitable airline.

Then came General Zia. Funny how that line is almost always the precursor to an account of a downturn in events. Zia became Pakistan’s Head of State in 1978.

PIA’s crew have had a few changes of uniform, from the first uniform of a hat and skirt to the second design by Feroze Cowasji. The third design was by Pierre Cardin and the fourth by Sir Hardy Amies. The fifth unform was designer by Pakistan’s own Naheed Azfar, and that appeared in 1986. The process of selection began earlier, personally overlooked by the General himself, who along with his wife was himself present and part of the judging panel. He found Azfar’s design too form fitting, nevertheless it became the uniform with a few strategic changes.

PIA’s life has never been easy, what with political interference in its running. In 1954, the Ministry of Defence for some reason took over the running of the airline; it controlled appointments and made all decisions that had previously been the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority. From then on the CAA became kind of redundant. Many major airlines stopped flying to Pakistan. PIA had the highest ratio of employees to aircraft in the world and it suffered due to interference by unions in management. It became known for its dirty cabins, bad food, failure to keep to the timetable, and worst of all, unreliable staff.

In 2013 Nawaz Sharif’s government separated the Aviation Division, which had been a wing of the Ministry of Defence, and it became an independent entity. The Aviation Division took over commercial airlines and the CAA.

The move out from under the thumb of the Ministry of Defence was hailed as a major step in the right direction, although subsequent governance seems to have compromised its potential.

The end seems to have come now with ‘dubious licenses’ adding the final nail on the coffin. Who wishes to fly an airline whose pilots have not passed their flying tests? Pakistan’s national carrier has now been banned from airports around the world and its pilots in several countries have been suspended until further investigation into the status of their flying permits.

The bit about dubious licenses is not hard to believe if one places the issue alongside the car driving licenses held by the people of Pakistan. Raise your hands all those who have a kosher license, obtained by taking a test?

Rabia Ahmed

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at http://rabia-ahmed.blogspot.com/