Some airlines are just airlines.
But others mean a lot more than that to the people they serve.
Pakistan’s national carrier was long a source of patriotic pride, a symbol of unity in a divided country. Now that airline is in big trouble.
Back in 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy visited Pakistan. Traveling without her husband, she did things a First Lady could never do today. She rode in an open-topped limousine and visited the Khyber Pass. When she left the country, it was as a passenger on the state-run Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).
The world was different then. Pakistan, founded in 1947, was a young nation boasting a surprisingly trendy airline. PIA’s flight attendants wore uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin in the 1960s — and later, by Queen Elizabeth’s own dressmaker.
“I think PIA was perceived as being very glamorous,” says Karachi-based political commentator Quatrina Hosain. “It was an icon, and everyone in Pakistan was very proud of it in Pakistan, because it was listed as one of the best airliners in the world, the crews were good-looking.”
Hosain is a lifelong PIA customer, but also one of its critics. The airline’s image began to tarnish long ago, she says.
“PIA has been seen as a place for political cronyism and political appointees for the last 20 or 30 years,” she says. “The airline has been used in ways that are absolutely incomprehensible.”
The airline is now in debt and in crisis. It faces competition from private airlines. Staff unions are fighting government plans to sell off at least part of it.
On Feb. 2, two PIA employees were shot dead in Karachi during a demonstration against privatization. It’s not clear who did it. The police used unusual force that day, including water cannons and teargas.
In a tent not far from the airport, a group of men mourns one of the two victims, a 57-year-old flight engineer named Saleem Akbar.
“When I received a call, I was really shocked and I don’t understand what should I do,” says his son, Fahad. “I never expected such things from the authorities. It was just a peaceful demonstration.”
PIA workers nationwide responded to the killings by walking out en masse. For almost a week, PIA’s fleet was grounded.
The strike was yet another reminder to Pakistanis of how far their airline’s star has fallen. They used to boast about how PIA was the first Asian airline to operate jets and how it provided the planes that helped launch Emirates airline.
Ask Pakistanis what’s gone wrong and they often reel off a list.
In part, says Khurram Husain of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, it’s “the inability of the government to manage what are essentially commercial enterprises. In part, political interference. In part, resistance to change from within due to excessive union activities and excessive bureaucratization.”
Husain has been tracking the airline for years. He says at the heart of PIA’s problems, there’s a number.
“That number is the accumulated losses that the airline has managed to rack up by now,” he says. “That number now stands at just under $3 billion, about half the national defense budget.”
That huge $3 billion debt is paralyzing the airline, says Husain. “Just about the only thing that senior PIA management has been busy with is arranging for funds with which to make the next debt-service obligation,” he says.
Pressure to overhaul PIA is coming from the International Monetary Fund, which has provided a big loan to Pakistan. The country’s economy is blighted by many problems, from chronic power shortages to massive tax avoidance. The IMF thinks it’s time to tackle loss-making state-run enterprises, like PIA.
Political commentator Hosain believes it’s inevitable that the government will have to sell a big chunk of the airline. “PIA is hemorrhaging dollars,” she says. “There’s no way around it.”
Many PIA staff hope that’s wrong.
“The basic thing is the security of job. There is no security of job in privatization,” says PIA accounts official Adnan Malik.
The Pakistani public may have fallen out of love with their airline. But Malik hasn’t. “When you serve in airline, you feel love with them,” he says. “You feel love for PIA. Yes. I love my country, I love PIA!”