The rise and fall of PIA - IV

Akhtar Mummunka tells the tale of PIA, as he experienced it

The rise and fall of PIA - IV
In 1978, PIA Investment Limited, a brainchild of Air Marshal Nur Khan, was created and the airline seriously moved into the hospitality sector. PIA already owned and managed a chain of hotels in Pakistan: Mid Way House and Airport Inn at Karachi Airport, Sambara Inn Larkana, Inter Pak Inn Sukkur, the Wali of Swat’s palace in Saidu Sharif (now Serena), Rakaposhi View in Gilgit (now Serena) and an under-construction property in Karimabad, Hunza Valley. Mr. Enver Jamall became the Chairman of PIA while Air Marshal Nur Khan headed PIA Investment Limited. In 1979, Air Marshal Nur Khan along with Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia got Hotel Roosevelt on a twenty-year lease with the option of purchase at a fixed amount of US$ 36.5 million. Hotel Roosevelt, a prime property of 1,015 rooms, including 52 suites, is located in the heart of midtown Manhattan, New York. In 1999, when Mr. Aslam R. Khan was the head of PIA Investment Limited, the option to purchase Roosevelt was exercised but at a higher price than the amount of the 1979 agreement. PIA Investment Limited went to court against the owners for breach of agreement and won the case in 2000. PIA Investment Limited had already purchased hotel Scribe in Paris, Minhal in Riyadh and another property in Abu Dhabi. These prime properties worth billions of US dollars were a parting gift from Air Marshal Nur Khan to PIA and indeed the people of Pakistan.

PIA's Hotel Roosevelt, New York

On the 15th of December 2011, Air Marshal Nur Khan died at the age of 88. He died as an unsung hero. But I feel that his contribution to Pakistan as the Air Chief, to PIA as the Managing Director/Chairman, to PIA Investment Limited as its first head and to Pakistan Hockey, Cricket and Squash as a guiding force deserves more than a quiet departure. He served as the president of Pakistan Hockey Federation twice (1967 to 1969 and 1978 to 1984) and transformed the game into a national sport and a household phenomenon. Pakistan’s hockey team won the first Gold Medal in 1960 when Naseer Bunda scored a goal against India at the Rome Olympics. In the same year at the same Olympics, Cassius Clay of the USA defeated Zbigniew Pietrzknwski of Poland to win a gold medal in boxing. Cassius Clay converted to Islam as Muhammad Ali in 1964 and became world heavy weight boxing champion thrice. The Pakistan Hockey Federation under Air Marshal Nur Khan won Hockey World Cups twice (1978 and 1982), Champions Trophy twice (1978 and 1980) and Olympic Gold Medals twice (1968 in Mexico City and 1984 in Los Angeles). I was present at the final of the Los Angeles Olymics, when Pakistan defeated Germany after a very tough fight. Squash, too, owes its great success to Air Marshal Nur Khan, who built a marvelous PIA Squash Complex at Karachi in 1976. Great squash legends like Aftab Javaid, Qamar Zaman, Mohibullah and Jahangir Khan were a pure a PIA Colts product that was designed by Air Marshal Nur Khan to train and groom young players to make them world champions.

How the PIA once saw itself

The Government of Pakistan had appointed two Honorary Consuls General in Spain to help build Pakistan’s relations with different regions of Spain: Mr. Juan Escoda, the owner of the prestigious Grife y Escoda stores, represented Pakistan in Barcelona for the Catalan region and Mr. Garibbi, a shipping magnate represented Pakistan in Bilbao for the Basque region. Mr. Juan Escoda was very active in helping Pakistani labourers coming to work in the Catalan region, particularly in coal mines. Mining coal is hard and dangerous and aside from those Pakistanis, not many would work in these mines. In 1978 there occurred a very serious accident in a coal mine in Spain in which unfortunately 8 Pakistanis lost their lives. PIA Madrid actively participated in sending the dead bodies back to Pakistan. Traditionally, the PIA Head Office increases the revenue target of each station by 15% over the present year’s achievement. Some moronic element in the head office increased PIA Spain’s target of ‘dead bodies’ from 8 to 10 for the coming year…

PIA’s Sales Team Karachi, during the farewell dinner for Mr K. D. Rana on his transfer to Copenhagen as Manager Scandinavia

In May 1978, there was an international trade fare in Barcelona and Mr. Juan Escoda requested PIA to participate in the fare for which he provided us the space free of cost. At the same time he organised my paintings exhibition at hotel Princesa Sofia. At the Pakistan pavilion Grife y Escoda displayed Chinese porcelain and Pakistani carpets, a “Punjabi” store displayed Pakistani handicrafts and PIA projected Pakistan as a tourist destination. The “Punjabi” was owned by Ms. Jacky and her husband Dr. Ali Rehmat, a professor at Montpellier University in south of France. Jacky and Ali became very good friends and later in 1983 organised my paintings exhibition in Cap d’Agde in the south of France. Our pavilion attracted a lot of trade visitors. Similarly, Mr. Escoda managed to invite the entire diplomatic community based in Barcelona to the exhibition. The other notable thing was the opening of a paintings exhibition by renowned Spanish painter Miro on the same day in Barcelona.

In September 1978, after completing my tenure, I was posted back to Pakistan as Passenger Sales Manager in Lahore. PIA had three offices scattered all over the city: the Booking Office was in Shah Din building, the District Manager’s office was in Hotel Ambassador and my office was at 5 K, near Gulberg Market. I had an amazing sales team of highly professional officers including some star cricketers like Asif Masood, Shafqat Rana, Talat Ali and Salim Altaf. In spite of such a brilliant team, PIA’s market share was no more than 30 percent and that was the major concern of the management. Mr. K. D. Rana, who had been my Passenger Sales Manager while I was a Sales Promotion Officer at Karachi, was posted to Lahore as District Manager to ensure that the national carrier got its due market share of 50% or above. Mr. Rana was known in the airline as the most aggressive salesman and we had been a very successful team in Karachi.

The author held an exhibition of his paintings in Barcelona

Anyone traveling for the first time out of Pakistan could fly any foreign carrier but repeat travel was restricted by the State Bank of Pakistan to be on PIA only

In October 1978 the second cricket test match between India and Pakistan took place in Lahore. Out of my sales team of ten, four cricketers were involved in the test match, one way or the other. Former fast bowler Asif Masood was a friend of Mr. Bishan Singh Bedi, the captain of the Indian team, and as such remained with him during the test match.  Mr. Shafqat Rana and Mr. Talat Ali were liaison officers with each team. Mr. Salim Altaf was part of the Pakistan team as a specialist for taking the wicket of India’s star batsman Mr. Sunil Gawaskar. He bowled him out at only 5 runs in the first inning. I respected their star status but needed 100% sales strength to achieve 50%-or-above market share. Most of these cricketers were hired in the sports pool by PIA and then transferred to the marketing department. The cricketers had the support of Mr. Omar Kureishi, a powerful director in PIA’s Head Office and as such cleverly enjoyed the facilities of the marketing department without shouldering the responsibilities. After the test match was over I issued them a release letter from my sales team and told them to report back to Mr. K. D. Rana for further assignment. I knew I could not resist the pressure of the Head Office but Mr. Rana could. And he did. The four cricketers, already retired from the game, were allowed to rejoin my sales team after a written commitment of not taking part in any sports activity.

Visitors at the Pakistani pavilion in the international trade fair, Barcelona, 1978

The business potential of PIA District Lahore, that included Sialkot and Gujranwala, was tremendous because of the labour traffic that was moving from rural Punjab to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iraq and Libya and a new trend in middle-class families for holidays abroad. Anyone traveling for the first time out of Pakistan could fly any foreign carrier but repeat travel was restricted by the State Bank of Pakistan to be on PIA only. This restriction worked as a double-edged sword: on the one hand the PIA sales team got lethargic and lost contact with people and on the other hand the travel agents and the public tried all means to avoid traveling by the national carrier. It was a serious dilemma that needed to be addressed and we came up with an out-of-the-box solution. PIA went “street selling”. I led the sales team, including the four star cricketers, to visit commercial areas like Brandrath Road, Hall Road, Mall Road, Anarkali and Liberty market. The response from traders was very encouraging. We next followed the Grand Trunk Road, visiting all the factories along the route to Gujranwala and Sialkot. In Aimanabad, near Gujranwala, we met Mr. Fakhir Jibran and secured business to carry 1,000 labourers to Tripoli in Libya. Pak Manpower, owned by Syed Khalifa Saifullah, my childhood friend from Bahawalnagar, had signed a contract with a Japanese firm to supply 5,000 in manpower to help in the construction of Baghdad International Airport. PIA moved this bulk traffic within three months. To attract individual families traveling abroad for holidays we launched a press campaign, “Dial- A-Vacation”, which set the trend for package tours in the local market.