What happened to PIA’s glory days?

Published: October 5, 2013
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In this picture, you can see Jacqueline Kennedy disembarking a PIA carrier in 1962. PIA was her favourite airline.

A rapid drop in altitude, deafening noise, sheer chaos, emergency alarms going off, doors and walls shuddering violently and people crying out loud!

This is not an account of a plane crash. Rather, it’s about a whole airline company coming crashing down; an organisation which has completely lost direction. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), once soaring high in the skies of the aviation industry, has fallen into an abyss of financial and image crisis.

So this is an account of our national flag carrier that used to be the nation’s pride; it is about Pakistan International Airlines.

I still remember the time when PIA was one of the few things we could talk about with our heads held high. We felt pride not at the condition of the age-old planes or technology; not at the in-flight entertainment system or even the food. It was not pride in the basic comfort and facilities provided. Rather, this pride, was for the people working in PIA – the quality and finesse of the pilots, the expertise and competence of the technical staff and engineers, the knowledge and capability of the cabin crew, and of course their grace and beauty.

My aunt was a PIA air hostess and I remember the awe she struck when she entered the house after coming back from a flight; in her sleek uniform with that trade-mark ‘dupatta’ on her head, looking absolutely  exquisite and thoroughly graceful. Well-educated, cultured, intelligent and service driven – these were some of the qualities that were synonymous with the majority of PIA’s crew and staff.

Crew of a PIA Super Constellation (AP-AJZ) led by Capt. Raja Zia with Thailand’s royal couple at Dacca Airport, East Pakistan, on March 21, 1962. Photo: Ahmed Saeed Siddiqi’s collection

My father was also part of the travel and airline industry and the fascinating stories he told me about PIA’s performance during the mid-1960s and early 1980s, always made me wonder. Sadly, today many of those stories might sound unreal.

A glimpse of the past

My father would tell me about Air Marshal Nur Khan, Managing Director of PIA, under whose exemplary leadership there were frequent surprise checks in the odd hours of night or early morning. He would personally check, not just the aircrafts but also other minute details such as the cleanliness of the staff’s uniforms and the condition of the check-in counters. The image of PIA, as the national flag carrier, was taken very seriously.

PIA’s very first jetliner Boeing 707-321 is under the command of Malik Nur Khan. Photo: Abbas Ali’s Collection

PIA made it compulsory for these passengers to be presentable and be properly dressed, as each of them was an “ambassador” of Pakistan. At times, had to report several hours prior to departure at the Karachi airport, where the sales manager would take them personally in shuttle buses to “Lunda Bazaar” and each would be bought a set of dresses, mostly suits, for them to change into before boarding an aircraft to London.

I still remember when PIA began to help set up a new airline for a country known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where I used to live,  in the mid-1980s. I read in the newspaper that PIA pilots and engineers were training and grooming the staff of this new airline called Emirates and I still recall the pride I felt at being a Pakistani.

It was fascinating to learn that in 1975, PIA selected its new uniforms through an open competition. The winning entry was designed by Sir Hardy Amies, the designer of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. The very fact that designers like Sir Amies and Pierre Cardin considered it prestigious enough to attach their names with PIA is heart-warming and heart-breaking at the same time.

Famous Hollywood stars Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger arrive at Lahore Airport, 1954. The actors arrived in Lahore with a full filming crew to shoot a major portion of the film ‘Bhowani Junction.’

The road to decline

Growing up in Dubai, I saw the emergence of Emirates Airlines over the years as one of the best airlines in the world, winning numerous global awards and establishing itself as a multi-billion dollar profit-making brand with one of the largest and most modern aircraft fleets.

I gradually felt my loyalties shifting towards Emirates and at the same time felt guilty for choosing it every time I had a choice. Honestly, I felt like a step-son when travelling by PIA – losing my luggage, eating tasteless food or staring at a TV-less seat in front of me during the entire journey, despite paying the same or higher air fare. On the other hand, increasingly I noticed that Emirates did not compromise on beauty, service or the grace of their crew.  As PIA continued on its downward spiral, I felt it was too much to ask for loyalty.

With the decline in service and quality, PIA got trapped into endless scandals and losses, not just in dollar value but in goodwill and reputation. It’s hard to believe that the airline that was Asia’s first to acquire a jet plane in its fleet back in the 1960s, has fallen behind all its peers in the race to upgrade, update and improve its image.

How does one explain that the first Asian airline ever to receive maintenance approval by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the past has been banned by the European Union in 2007 based on safety concerns for its aging fleet?

Who would believe that the first airline ever to show in-flight movies on international routes and to use the first computer ever in Pakistan, would someday lose its customer base because people would perceive it as archaic and out-dated.

What went wrong?

Although there is a lot of information on the reasons for PIA’s downfall, I would rather not quote boring statistics. For me, all those negative numbers and record losses are merely a symptom and not the cause. The recent incident of a PIA pilot being arrested at Manchester airport for being drunk was an all-time low in the history of an organisation that has a glorious past.

Any iota of pride that Pakistanis had for its national carrier or its highly responsible and competent pilots was snatched away, thanks to the son of some military general with a few bad habits. Even if there were any loyal souls left in the European countries where PIA flights cannot land, who were trying to convince foreigners that banning PIA is unfair and based on unfounded fears, they would surely be eating up their words after this incident.

How do you explain the stupidity of one person which puts the safety standards of the entire organisation at risk? This incident, along with the case of the three stewards who were arrested on charges of harassing a female passenger, might be among the few instances that came to light. There may be many such things that go unreported on a daily basis. Sadly, such instances are merely a reflection of the low self-esteem of the people attached to an institution that lost its esteem years ago due to corruption, poor judgement, weak decisions and above all, complacency.

Samir Tariq

Samir Tariq

A Strategy and Business Transformation Manager for one of the leading banks in the Middle-East. He lives and works in Dubai. A literature lover and a writer by hobby he mostly writes fiction inspired by true life events.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • TahirF1

    So sad to read and see pictures of such a glorious past. What a steep decline in all kinds of industries and human behavior and ethics as a whole in our society!Recommend

  • Aamir

    Makes my heart weep when I read this. PIA pilots drunk and embarrass us of us worldwide. Passengers and crew fighting on planes. As a country we have reached lows that I would not have imagined 50 years ago.Recommend

  • Anjum Munir

    My family and I took the flight from London Heathrow Airport to Islamabad last week, on board we noticed how the staff were unwelcoming to not only us but every passenger. It is not nice to board a plane where the staff cannot make an effort to smile. The whole planes interior was outdated, scruffy and looked somewhat unhygienic along with the toilets. It didn’t feel pleasant or comfortable at all. The food was both bland and lacked variety. Blankets were given out selectively so not everyone received one and the remote to my seat was broken off which meant no entertainment. After no action taken by staff I took matters in my own hands and moved to an empty row. Overall I am dreading flying back to the UK using this Airline.Recommend

  • Shams

    It’s people like me who have have flew the airline for ‘free’ for the last 2 decades, this has destroyed the airline- too many free-riders!…. sad reality.Recommend

  • shehzad

    always “no seat, too expansive for same destination than others, no good safty record, too much wastage of money for un necessary employees, and retired ones, too high salaries, all these brought big gap between income and expanses, ( employees whole family get free tickets for any where in the world twice a year, and plus travel agents lie that no seat on PIA for next 2 months, so the customer go for other1 who pay good commission to agent, and PIA loose customers)Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    You can replace PIA with countless Pakistani institutions in that sentence: “What happened to PIA’s glory days?”Recommend

  • Ch. Allah Daad

    The fall of Pakistan is fall of PIA. Its not possible that when creditors take away your house, they will spare the car. I have read somewhere that a US ambassador on retirement bought a house in Karachi to spend rest of his life in this beautiful city because in his opinion Karachi was far better than New York.Recommend

  • Parvez

    What happened to PIA ?………everyone who worked for PIA went on to become rich while PIA went broke and down the drain. Quite similar to what’s happening to Pakistan.Recommend

  • Dj

    PIA’s glory days were flushed out along with Jinnah’s Pakistan in 1978, when a tyrannical dictator/ warmonger took office the same guy who gave our prestigious institutions to the Americans and uneducated molvis, brought an alien law to a country with over 60 different kinds of religions, sects, ethnicities and groups that were living in harmony, tried a popular politician to death, ruined the country’s education and health departments, completely destroyed our culture and then died in a plane crash a few years later without even looking at the permanent damage he caused to our nation.
    Any guesses to who this nut job is?Recommend

  • Aziz

    Well till PIA plans to become professional, and I really mean professional till then nothing much will happen.. I visited many of PIA’s departments in Karachi,Lahore and othe parts of world. I really found totally illiterate persons hired at places. You will find jahill wadera/Chaudry type person sitting at high positions of PIA engineering!!!!!!! and other departments like marketting and so on… and then PIA staff at various staff will let their friends and relative to take hundered of KGs of extra luggage for free,, but then they will leave a poor person for one KG.. there are hundered of cases like these.

    Other than that, PIA policies is just unable to grab more market and attract more passenger. I have seen that many Pakistanis just hate to fly with PIA, and that really includes me as well.

    All these situations lead to lossess and massive losses.Recommend

  • farris

    when nepotism takes over professionalism and all this started in PPP’s benazir era. However, the competetive egde is a global phenomenon – TWA does anyone remember it???? way forward is declare bankruptucy, fire unnessary staff and reorganize as a private, professional entity. Era of Nationalism is over!Recommend

  • jt

    I think that nut job was Micheal jackson !Recommend

  • hassan

    I am stunned to see how smart PIA Air hostess look in these pictures. Nowdays, a lot of PIa hostess look like she-males !Recommend

  • Ali

    I travelled to Karachi from Toronto on Sunday. No blankets, seats were uncomfortable and our flight to Karachi required us to stop in Islamabad, get our luggage out, and check in again before we were on our way to Karachi. The entertainment system did not work for the whole journey. The service has become extremely poor now.Recommend

  • Samir tariq

    While writing this never in my wildest dreams had i imagined that very same day this is published a PIA flight to dubai would catch fire. Thank God there has been no casualty as the plane managed to land safely but it just goes to prove that this condition is simply a disaster waiting to happen…Recommend

  • Zafar

    Close call: PIA plane lands despite engine fire

    http://tribune.com.pk/story/614528/close-call-pia-plane-lands-despite-engine-fire/

    Sigh another problem today.Recommend

  • Sane

    The degeneration of PIA and other esteem institutions of this country started in the era of Z.A. Bhutto when merit was ignored and political affiliation and nepotism replaced it. Later the institution of corruption and incompetency got strong and strong day by day. Result is present state of PIA, Steel Mills and many strategic assets. These are now at the verge of privatization (sale). It is now too late to undo the misery the country is facing and shall face.Recommend

  • unbelievable

    And what precious institution was given to the Americans? Can’t anything bad happen in Pakistan without blaming the American’s?Recommend

  • Hassan

    PIA has been banned from Europe many times due to its safety failure and I’ve been in UK for last 8 years and have heard a lot abt cancelling of its landing on different airports due safety reasons. But still we r the lucky one no major accident yet.Recommend

  • Zoya

    Forget PIA, Karachi’s W-11 buses are the best!!Recommend

  • Fahim

    Permanently Incompitent AirlineRecommend

  • Baba Ji

    Condition like this, not only PIA of … whole country, to dogs, has gone !!!Recommend