Exclusive - PIA Faces Uncertain Future

Since long, Pakistan International Airlines is on the downturn caused by corruption, overstaffing, mismanagement, leading figures that come and go and, above all, the lack of basic reforms. Nothing really changes because PIA has become something to loot for various interest groups that only pursue their selfish interests, torpedoing the advance of the airline, argues Bernd Hildenbrand, the carrier’s former acting CEO.

Bernd Hildenbrand (left) discussing aviation matters with former PAK Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif  -   photos: private
Bernd Hildenbrand (left) discussing aviation matters with former PAK Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - photos: private

Ittehad, Tanzeem, Yaqeen-e-Muhkam, these three words in the Urdu language stand for unity, discipline and strong faith. They are Pakistan’s guiding principles since the former British colony achieved independence in 1947.
With regard to PIA, however, these symbolic words are nothing but empty phrases. Unity: PIA is split into several groups, each of them acting in their own, selfish interest. Discipline: it became an alien word for many of the carrier’s staff. And Solid Faith: that supposedly expresses the hope of the airlines’ leading figures that nothing serious will happen despite the many shortcomings, including lousy maintenance and technical services.

Gulf carriers dominate the PAK market
Pakistan is a huge aviation market, for both passenger and freight transport. However, when taking a closer look it becomes very clear, argues Hildenbrand, that PIA plays only the fourth or fifth fiddle in their home market. The fleet comprises 36 aircraft: 11 Boeing 777s, 11 A320s, 11 ATRs, with only half of them flying and 3 A310s which are in dilapidated conditions. The carrier employs 17,000 staff, with partisanship and favoritism being responsible for double or even triple occupation of many jobs.
An unbearable situation that Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways have taken advantage of, offering passengers and cargo clients alike reliable, efficient and punctual services with superior quality. No wonder that they have become the dominant players in a market of 210 million inhabitants, seen, for instance, by the seven daily flights Karachi-Dubai operated by Emirates.

Hildenbrand pictured in front of an Airbus at a time he still was positive to turn things at PIA to the bettter
Hildenbrand pictured in front of an Airbus at a time he still was positive to turn things at PIA to the bettter

Missed opportunity
Despite permanent interventions of unions, pilots and even loading personnel in the affairs of the national carrier, there was a time window at the beginning of 2016 to change things for the better. Fed up with the permanent operational inefficiency and huge losses produced by the airline year after year, PIA Chairman Nasser Jaffer was eager to steer a new course, turning things to the better. So he brought in external expertise, assigning Bernd Hildenbrand, a former Lufthansa manager the job as COO. He was guaranteed the hiring of three additional aviation professionals in order to start a root-and-branch transformation of PIA based on managerial and technical decisions, and not on satisfying lobby interests. A promise, however, the government never has adhered to, which became evident only months after.
Hildenbrand arrived in Pakistan in February 2016, eager to change things for the better. In his pocket he had a list of fundamental reform proposals, including fleet modernization plans, initiatives to speedily better services and punctuality, complemented by his proposal to split PIA in two, one part - an “old” debt-laden unit and a “new”, profitable PIA. Ambitious targets. However, when Hildebrand started his mission, the carrier’s chairman Jaffer had just resigned over countrywide protests by airline staff against privatization tabled by the government and the tragic killing of three protesters in a clash with security forces.   

Upswing of PIA’s cargo business ended fast
Despite these rather unfavorable circumstances, Hildenbrand negotiated new work contracts during his tenure, leased a fairly new Airbus A330 from Sri Lankan to be operated on the London route and equipped the cabin crew with stylish uniforms.
Further to this, the manager turned the cargo business upside down by closing all external stations, ordering their employees back home. “We ran a lot of representations but with little or no effect on our sales,” he recalls. Instead, Hildenbrand, who had become acting CEO meanwhile, inked a deal with sales agent Leisure Cargo mandating them to sell the lower deck capacity of the carrier’s fleet operating on key intercontinental routes.
A decision that paid off immediately, seen by double-digit leaps of cargo revenues from May 2016 onwards. In addition, he shut down a small cargo firm belonging to PIA that handled express shipments within the domestic PAK market. “They were completely overstaffed and highly deficient,” he reasons.
Simultaneously, the on-time performance of the carrier’s London flights was improved dramatically. Thanks to the modern A330, the passenger service was enhanced and brought to a new level,” Hildenbrand recalls, shown by the fast rising number of travelers.

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Rolling backwards again
However, the tentative reforms initiated by the acting CEO ended in the spring of this year, when opposition to his modernization course mounted, supported by the newly enthroned Chairman Irfan Elahi who accused Hildenbrand of being corrupt and involved in dubious aircraft trading deals. A “ridiculous accusation,” Bernd states.
He was removed from office and Pakistani authorities put his name on an Exit Control List, without any reasons given to him. “I learned this from the newspapers,” Bernd recalls. Finally, he was allowed to leave Pakistan without further impediment after an intervention by the German Embassy.
Since his departure, sadly enough, it’s business as usual at PIA.

Heiner Siegmund

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