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EDITORIAL: The national carrier, PIA, and with it Pakistan's reputation continue to pay a price for the speech Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan delivered in the National Assembly in the wake of PK-8303 crash in Karachi claiming 97 lives. He had declared that 260 of 860 commercial pilots in this country had fake or dubious licences, adding "they did not take the exam themselves" and had someone else to sit it on their behalf. As a result, first the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) suspended PIA's flights to the EU countries for six months, followed by the UAE. Then several other countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Kuwait, grounded Pakistani pilots voicing concern over their licences. In an unsurprising development on Thursday, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) also revoked the special permission granted to PIA to operate special flights. According to a DOT notification, the action follows "recent events identified by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority that are of serious concern to aviation safety."

The government is desperately trying to control the damage, achieving success in the case of the UAE agreeing to allow resumption of regular PIA operations to the emirate. On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Sohail Mehmood held a video conference with Spain's State Secretary for Foreign Affairs to offer the assurance that necessary steps are being taken to secure the highest level of flight safety in PIA operations. EASA is unlikely to lift its ban anytime soon, though. Even if it does that before six months, the carrier will not be able to fully recover from the harm done to its credibility. For, in this business the winning factor is traveller confidence, which takes years to build and just one instance to shatter it. After flights to all international destinations are resumed, people may think twice before opting for PIA. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots was not so wrong when it averred that the minister'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."

That, of course, is not to say that the government should have left the cheaters to stay on but that the weeding out process should have been conducted in a discreet but effective manner. In fact, the Aviation Minister said the other day that the investigations into the licences scandal were started long before the tragic crash of PK-8303. In that case, the way to go about it was to complete the investigations and punish the wrongdoers rather than to highlight a sensitive weak point in the aftermath of a horrendous tragedy. Besides, it is not enough to focus only on the pilots. The regulator, Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA), must be held to account for its role in landing the national carrier in dire straits. It is about time the government launched a thorough inquiry into the PCAA's affairs without any further loss of time.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020