The rise and fall of PIA - V

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

The rise and fall of PIA - V
Mufti Mohammad Salim (fondly called Mistry Mohammad Salim) during his 50 years in the airline industry was one of the key figures in the establishment of Orient Airways, PIA and Air Malta. He also played important roles in reorganizing Alia - Royal Jordanian Airlines and Syrian Arab Airlines. During his stay in Jordan, Mr. Salim developed a friendship with Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq (who was posted there from 1967 to 1970). Zia-ul-Haq was there to train the army of King Hussein. In September 1970, Brigadier Zia-ul-Haq, in command of Jordan’s 2nd Division, participated in operations resulting in the massacre of thousands of Palestinians, while the rest were expelled from the West Bank and Jordan. Later General Zia-ul-Haq, on becoming Pakistan’s dictator, followed a policy of “Three J’s” as a yardstick while appointing people to key positions:

J – Jamat-e-Islami (A party that supported his rule)

J – Jalandhar (His birthplace in East Punjab, India)

J – Jordan (His associates from his Jordan days)

On retirement in 1979, Mr. M.M. Salim wanted to rejoin PIA but Mr. Enver Jamall, the Chairman, turned down his request as he wanted to promote a younger officer from within PIA to the post of Managing Director. Mr. Enver Jamall was a thorough professional and under him PIA was making a profit, but labour unions were becoming a source of constant trouble. President Zia-ul-Haq took a personal interest in the affairs of PIA and forced Mr. Jamall to support CBA (Collective Bargaining Agents) a union backed by Jamat-e-Islami. General Zia went to dinner at the apartment of Mr. Enver Jamall and cunningly persuaded him to appoint Mr. M.M. Salim as the Managing Director of PIA.

Mr. M.M Salim (left), then newly appointed Managing Director, with Mr. Enver Jamall, the Chairman of PIA

General Zia was pushing his fundamentalist brand of Islam on Pakistan and PIA, depriving it of international passengers

During the 1970s and early 1980s, all foreign airlines were operating flights out of Karachi, except for British Airways, which was allowed to operate to and from Islamabad. There was no other airline except PIA that had the domestic network. I, as Passenger Sales Manager of PIA, took full advantage of this monopoly and offered the travel agents a very lucrative incentive. At that point in time, agents were given a 9% commission on International tickets and 5% on domestic tickets. I could not increase the commission on international tickets due to IATA regulations but could do so on the domestic tickets: any agent giving 50% of his total monthly business to PIA was offered an additional 1% commission on domestic sales, 2% additional commission was given if 60% of total sales were on PIA and so on. This incentive worked wonders and we were able to increase our market share from 30% to over 60%. Thus the overall situation on PIA network was very satisfactory and the airline was making profit.

TAAP (Travel Agents Association of Pakistan) and PIA collaborated on mutually beneficial issues and volunteered to organize the Pakistan Tourism Convention in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. All stakeholders involved in tourism came forward to help: PIA provided free tickets to foreign tour operators, whilst the hotel association provided hospitality and TAAP did the rest. Later on, PIA also started an Air Safari over the Karakoram Range to attract foreign tourists. The safari was particularly popular with Japanese tourists. Unfortunately, over the years TAAP as well as the Government lost interest in the promotion of tourism and the last tourism convention was held in Lahore 20 years ago, in 1997.

Tragic loss: until her demise in the fatal 1965 crash near Cairo, Miss Momi Gul was the face of PIA

In 1980, Mr. M. M. Salim was appointed the Managing Director, along with a special team:  Brigadier Manto (no relation to the writer Saadat Hassan Manto) was made Director Administration and Col. Mukhtar was hired to head the notorious vigilance department. General Zia’s iron grip was getting stronger and he was pushing his fundamentalist brand of Islam on Pakistan and PIA.  Following Saudi Airlines, General Zia banned serving alcohol on PIA flights, thus depriving the airline of almost 30% of passenger traffic, particularly that of foreigners. PIA was reduced to the status of an ethnic carrier. In 1981, the notorious MLR (Marshal Law Regulation) 52 was clamped on PIA to weed out officers and staff suspected of having sympathies for Bhutto and his party. The first victim of MLR 52 was Mr. Omar Kureishi, punished for being a classmate, a friend and a debating partner of Mr. Bhutto at the University of Southern California. The bounty hunters of General Zia-ul-Haq came down hard on the marketing department and scores of brilliant officers were unceremoniously shown the door, on one pretext or the other.

In early 1982, Mr. Saleem Nisar, a brilliant salesman of PIA, took charge as Passenger Sales Manager, Lahore. I was promoted and posted to Cairo as Manager Egypt, Sudan and Ghana. My association with Cairo dates back to 1965 when my friend Syed Akbar Hussain Rizvi tried his level best but failed to put me on PIA’s inaugural flight destined to London via Cairo. Now, 17 years later, I was finally in Cairo with one thought in mind. What if my friend had not failed me? PK 705, with 121 guests including 13 crew mmembers, crashed on the early morning of the 20th of May, 1965, barely 15 kilometers short of Cairo International Airport. Mr. Anwar Khan, manager PIA Egypt along with the entire staff, was at the airport to welcome the inaugural guests but the welcome ceremony turned into mourning. A Bedouin eyewitness reported later that he saw the aircraft break up as it exploded into flames. Six passengers miraculously were thrown out of the burning wreckage and survived. PIA lost Mr. Jimy Mirza, Commercial and Marketing Director, Captain Ali Akhtar Khan and stewardess Momi Gul Durrani. Even after 52 years, Miss Gul is still the most recognised personality of PIA. She had the face of Hollywood actress Grace Kelly and the figure of Ava Gardner.

Every year on the 20th of May, the Pakistani Embassy, PIA and the Pakistani community living in Cairo visit the memorial of Cairo crash victims in the southern grave yard, near the mausoleum of Al-Imam al-Shafi’i.  On the 20th of May 1982, I was joined by Mr. Zafar ul Islam, our Ambassador to Egypt, Defense Attaché  Col. Ali Quli Khan (later on, a senior-most general, superseded by General Musharraf), the Pakistani community and the entire PIA staff to say Fatiha and lay a wreath at the memorial. Crashes are a very sad affair with us in PIA, as we consider crew to be part of family. The Cairo crash in particular, being the inaugural flight, can never be erased from our memory.