Mistress in the sky - Masood Hasan - Sunday, March 27, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=38422&Cat=9

Poor PIA. Abused and exploited repeatedly by government after government. Its greatest sin has been its birth in the public sector, where mismanagement, corruption and nepotism are but three of the many terminal diseases that stalk all ventures born here. PIA has barely survived years and years of all this and today is a pale shadow of what it used to be. It was the toast of other airlines. Now it’s just stale bread that only scavengers are interested in of which there is never any shortage here. Like vultures hovering over a kill, they bite and tear off the little bits of flesh still left. Before long there will be just bones.

In a brilliant and scathing piece two years ago, columnist Mosharraf Zaidi, exposed the ills that plague the airline. Things today are worse than they were then – and they were pretty grim even then. He had said at the time, that PIA primarily existed to ‘provide gainful employment to thousands of utterly incompetent political sycophants...because the sycophant got his job in spite of the customer (not because of her). That is why, at PIA, the customer always comes last.’ Well the sycophants still rule the roost.

The current lot has restored thousands who had earlier been thrown out, back to milking the good cow. A good measure that would have trimmed spiralling costs somewhat has been neatly chucked aside like a bone. Votes and brownie points have been the rationale, not efficiency. It was the same in 2007 when 8,000 jiyalas laid off after termination of their jobs in 1996, were restored with great fanfare to further dig PIA’s grave deeper. Dare one add that it has almost always been the same? And always will.

Those who have bankrupted the airline without shame have been its most vocal supporters in public as per their double-faced sleazy lives. Their ham-handed policies would have brought down Microsoft. PIA was always easy pickings. People like the late President Leghari, the damp and thoroughly corrupt squid Shaukat Aziz and his publicity hungry messiah, the lecture-circuit president, Commando 1, the slithering Chaudhrys of Gujrat where travellers were warned to look after their shoes as these could be stolen in a jiffy, BB and before her the Mians, the current prime minister and his president – not to mention the armies of brass-encased officers, slimy bureaucrats, shady ministers, inefficient advisers and dozens of other ‘notable’ nobodies – all who have used PIA as one would while strolling on the sleazy side street of a European flesh pot.

The great tragedy is that not only has the national airline been crippled and broken beyond repair but its vast network of mismanagement and its humongous losses have all been accrued at our expense – the idiots amongst us who pay taxes. Zaidi said in 2009 that the 2007 PIA Annual Report listed 18,231 employees and a loss of Rs38.5 billion! Thus in 2007 each PIA employee lost more than Rs2.16 million!

Currently things are worse. At the end of the third quarter, September 30th 2010, PIA’s losses stood at – here goes, Rs11, 693, 422. Wait, you still have to add three zeroes to that figure! What it all adds up to, I haven’t the foggiest notion? My Greek was never my strong suite. This monumental loss is higher than what was recorded a year earlier. How much further the losses have gone up since September is anybody’s guess. Government’s solution is to remove one (now discovered) incompetent MD with another old boy from Petaro. (How big was that class Rehman Malik Sahib please tell us?). Of the new gent, other than making the usual speeches about restoring the glory that was PIA, there is nothing much else to report. There are however some hairy stories including his taking over a PIA flight (boys will be boys) whilst heading the Civil Aviation. I just hope it is not true because it is the stuff of nightmares.

Changing MDs is hardly the solution. You have to change the whole rotten structure, ruthlessly and without mercy. That we all know will not happen in a decade of Sundays, sorry Fridays. And as PIA destinations shrink and as myopic, self serving ad hoc thinking calls the shots with a monolithic Ministry of Defence presiding over the funeral pyre and stroking it with generous dabs of gasoline, many Pakistanis feel sad because to them PIA is not an airline – it is their airline, their identity and their being.

I think most of us understand the monumental problems PIA is buffeted with, it can do little but what has happened to the small things that don’t involve buying new aircraft – PIA has just 40, that don’t require a Board Meeting or an MOD clearance? Things that define us, make us different have also fallen by the wayside. It is these things that hurt us because unlike PIA’s mega problems these have solutions.

I am known to exaggerate but I can swear that in the last so many years, the menu has never changed. There is a bun with a pat of butter (why?), a salad that could easily carry the skulls and bones logo, a very watery raita and then the dish that would make Gordon Ramsey jealous, chicken or mutton biryani – take your pick you lucky travellers. I have eaten it so many times mostly out of sheer hunger and because it is hot, but culinary delight it is not. There is always a ‘sweet’ which is best avoided. This in a land of culinary traditions! Is this the best we can do? Apparently there is an alternative dish but that must be a closely guarded secret. Never seen it or smelt it. The snack is eternal. Two dry sandwiches, one with cheese one without. What are the Catering Department magicians up to? Surely without asking the government, the cuisine can be improved?

Why are the bathrooms unusable? On a recent flight to Dubai, the bathroom had been sealed off and there was an unbearable stench of urine, compounded further by generous sprays of Rose Perfume. Apparently the 777 flight had arrived from Paris with the stink and then took us to Dubai while passengers held their noses and cursed PIA. Cabin crew on other airlines regularly cleans the bathrooms. Ours never venture inside. That is somewhat understandable because after a Paki uses a public loo, no one else can. But there are gloves and face masks and that can save crews from asphyxiation but you cannot dump a dirty loo on a long journey to revenue enhancing passengers. The colognes are long gone – apparently people steal them. Well find a way that they cannot.

And in-flight entertainment is everything except entertainment. Some ancient, washed out, dead boring serial of Paki vintage is hurled at shell-shocked passengers. Is this the best on offer? There is a department that supposedly jets all over the world scouting for new entertainment. Who are they and what is on the menu? A documentary on Pakistan would be a divine gift. And how can people watch the crap if headphones are either never distributed or done half way through? As for music on the channels and on board, the less said the better.

These are some small measures – there are many more that can easily be undertaken. There are some good people in PIA and they must be given some opportunity to make changes in spite of the gloomy looks that PIA staff wears. PIA should be rescued from the clutches of the MOD and the awful public sector – that’s perhaps the only way to save it. If not, it should be closed down. The good lord never said, ‘thou must have an airline’.

The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: masoodhasan66@gmail.com

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