Deadly skies: Pakistani pilots allege systemic safety failures

Pakistani pilots claim that fraud and improper flight certification practices at the country’s civil aviation regulator are an open secret, while air safety has routinely been compromised by airlines through faulty safety management systems, incomplete reporting and the use of regulatory waivers.

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), the country’s largest airline and only major international carrier, was at the centre of most of the air safety complaints, and denied all of the allegations.

Scrutiny of Pakistan’s commercial aviation sector has increased as pilots have found themselves battling allegations by the country’s aviation minister that almost a third of all licensed Pakistani pilots had obtained their certifications fraudulently.

His comments came weeks after a PIA passenger jet crashed in the southern city of Karachi, killing 98 people.

The names of three of the six pilots Al Jazeera spoke to were on the list of “fake” licence-holders. They deny any wrongdoing.

State-owned PIA grounded 102 pilots and launched an internal inquiry following the aviation minister’s allegations. Pilots at two other Pakistani airlines, SereneAir and Airblue, were also suspended pending clearance.

A crash, and its wake

On May 22, a PIA Airbus A320 crashed into a residential neighbourhood in the southern city of Karachi, killing 97 of the 99 people on board as well as one person on the ground, according to official data.

While releasing the preliminary investigation report into the crash, Pakistani Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said the crash appeared to be due to “human error”.

He also announced that a separate, ongoing government inquiry had found that 262 of the country’s 860 licensed pilots had obtained their credentials fraudulently. A list of the pilots was drawn up and sent to airlines.

At least 28 pilots have had their licences cancelled since the announcement, while inquiries into the remaining pilots are ongoing, Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) says.

Pilots’ bodies criticised the announcement, claiming the government’s list had a number of errors such as including the names of deceased pilots, confusing pilots with similar names, and classifying pilots as belonging to airlines they had never flown with or taking exams they never attempted.

Pakistani aviation regulations are unclear on the specific issue of taking exams on the same day as a scheduled flight, requiring only that pilots be “adequately rested” before undertaking flight duties.

Within days of the list being released, civil aviation regulators in at least 10 countries and territories, including the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Malaysia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Bahrain, Turkey and Hong Kong, grounded pilots holding Pakistani licences and asked the PCAA to verify their credentials.

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