Faces of institutional failure

Sakib Sherani

INSTITUTIONS intersect our daily lives in myriad but mostly unnoticed or unseen ways. Ensuring public safety is one such domain. Among many different ways, public safety can be in the form of ensuring buildings that we live and work in are built to certain minimum standards, or that road traffic follows laid-down guidelines, or the food that we consume is safe to eat and is not a carrier for disease and ill health, or medicines available to the public are approved, certified and safe.

With air travel having become a large part of our daily lives, ensuring the safety of air traffic through our skies is also a responsibility that falls within the domain of government and its agencies. In most countries, this is done through an industry regulator tasked with the safety of aircraft, passengers and people on the ground. The regulator is supposed to be independent and equipped with the necessary resources and competence to fulfil its role via a system of certifications, inspections, spot checks, procedure audits, notifications etc. of the civilian airlines and planes operating in the country’s airspace. The safety of movement of aircraft through a designated airspace is complemented by an elaborate architecture of air safety infrastructure such as a network of radars and air traffic control systems.

A second tier of systems designed to ensure aircraft and passenger safety is meant to reside within the airlines themselves. This takes the form of engineering standards and systems, crew training, testing and certification, delineating proper flight procedures and ensuring adherence to them etc. With airlines dependent on the trust of passengers, investing heavily in ensuring passenger safety and incident-free travel is of utmost importance to most reputable airlines. This is done via investing in a newer fleet of aircraft, ensuring regular training for flight crews, as well as investing in state-of-the-art engineering facilities. A small but important piece of the overall institutional architecture is the association of pilots. By looking out for the interests of the flight crew, these associations ensure that service guidelines and conditions, many of which concern the safe operation of aircraft, are adhered to by airlines.

PIA and CAA have a lot to answer for in the crash of PK-661.

Unfortunately, much of this architecture has failed time and again in the case of Pakistan. Most recently, it showed up in the tragic crash of PK-661 on Dec 7 operating from Chitral to Islamabad, with the loss of all 47 lives on board. How are PIA and the Civil Aviation Authority culpable for this crash — the 12th major crash to occur in the past 40 years involving a Pakistani airliner? First, maintaining aircraft in airworthy condition, and ensuring that airlines are doing so, are the responsibility of PIA as well as CAA. In the case of PIA’s ATR fleet, it has been pressed into intense short cycle service since induction. With no redundancy built into the fleet, any downtime is extremely costly and disruptive for the airline. Hence, according to insiders, downtime is avoided by wrongly certifying the planes as airworthy and recording maintenance as having been completed even when this is not always the case.

Examine: ATR aircraft are ‘very safe’: Experts

In addition, according to a popular TV programme that first aired its allegations over a year before the crash of PK-661, PIA’s engineering department, with the clear knowledge of PIA management, has adopted ‘non-standard’ and ‘faulty’ procedures for the maintenance of the turboprops of the ATR fleet. This has been revealed in correspondence from the manufacturer to PIA. However, PIA’s management has insisted on following the non-standard procedure as it saves money, according to the programme Khara Such by Mubasher Luqman.

With the crash of ATR 42 AP-BHO, PIA, mainly its management and engineering department, and CAA as the regulator that allowed these practices and provided the airworthiness certification, have landed in the soup. Any impartial inquiry will uncover the collusion between PIA’s management and CAA that has allowed air passenger safety to be compromised for so long. To cover its tracks, CAA has engaged in a deliberate attempt to mislead investigations and external inquiries, including one by the Senate. In my opinion, it has made two patently false assertions to the Senate regarding the loss of PK-661. First, it asserted that the plane’s engines were in perfect order at the time of take off from Chitral, and implied that it could not point to engine failure as a cause. Second, it informed the Senate that the pilot did not appear to have made any attempt at an emergency landing.

Both these assertions are false, as proven by the recording of the conversation between Islamabad air traffic control (ATC) and the pilots of PK 661. According to the tapes available with Islamabad ATC, approximately 36-38 miles from Islamabad, the captain issued his first ‘Mayday’ call reporting the loss of one engine. After several minutes, the cockpit crew made a second ‘Mayday’ call informing Islamabad approach of attempting an emergency landing. This was the last radio communication from the stricken aircraft.

With PIA having been identified internationally as an ‘outlier’ in terms of its poor safety record, both CAA and the airline need to be hauled up for allowing this situation to persist. It is imperative that an impartial, comprehensive and thorough inquiry is held into the loss of PK-661, responsibility is assigned for the multiple failures that occurred, and lessons learned for the future. PIA and CAA not only owe it to the families of the passengers on board PK-661, but to all airline passengers flying within Pakistan. PIA also owes a large burden of debt to the people of northern areas, especially of Chitral and Gilgit, who rely so heavily on the national airline to remain connected.

The writer is a former economic adviser to government, and currently heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2017

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