The rise and fall of PIA - I

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

The rise and fall of PIA - I
Jacqueline Kennedy, the First Lady of the United States of America, during her official visit to Pakistan in March 1962, was the chief guest at the annual Horse & Cattle Show held at Fortress Stadium, Lahore. I, along with a group of students from F.C. College, ran all the way to Canal Bridge on the Mall Road to have a glimpse of the most graceful First Lady of her time. Waving and smiling, she rode an open buggy along with Nawab Amir Muhammad Khan, then Governor of West Pakistan. In the same year she traveled by PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) to London. She was so impressed by the quality of cuisine, in-flight service and the professionalism of the crew that she hugged Captain M.M.  Salehjee and endorsed PIA’s slogan, ”Great People to Fly With”. This slogan was given to PIA by Mr. Omar Kureishi. It was then the dream of many young men and women to join this prestigious organisation of our country.

Air Marshal Asghar Khan, President of the PIA at the Ground Training School - Photo courtesy - Arjamand Ahmad

The PIA owed its glory to none other than Air Commodore Malik Nur Khan, who was the Managing Director from 1959 to 1965. He took bold decisions and made the PIA into the leading airline of Asia and one of the five best airlines of the world. But the PIA also had a brilliant team of aviation technocrats like Mr. Enver Jamall, Mr. Jimy Mirza, Mr. Anwar Hussain, Mr. Hurmet Beg, Mr. M.M. Salim and brilliant cricket commentator Mr. Omar Kureishi, all at Nur Khan’s disposal. Air Commodore Nur Khan is also credited for the construction of the Hotel Intercontinental chain in Pakistan, in collaboration with Pan American Airways. These five-star properties were built in Karachi, Dhaka, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar.

During the 1965 War, Nur Khan was the Chief of Air Staff for the Pakistan Air Force and struck hard at the Indian Air Force in wartime. Air Marshal Nur Khan was always in the air, guiding PAF fighter pilots.  I have reconfirmed from AVM Faooq Umar, a flight lieutenant during the 1965 war, that he was ordered by Air Marshal Nur Khan, “Go and break the sound barrier over Amritsar!” Too fast for over a hundred anti aircraft guns spitting fire into the air, the daredevil carried out the order. “Go! Do it again!” was the order from Air Marshal Nur Khan. Farooq Umar broke the sound barrier for a second time over Amritsar – much to the consternation of the Indian Air Force. AVM Farooq Umar also served as Managing Director of PIA later on!

PIA in-flight service from a bygone era: the finest food and drinks

Air Marshal Asghar Khan had replaced Malik Nur Khan as the President of Pakistan International Airlines, serving from 1965 to 1968. Air Marshal Asghar Khan assigned Mr. Omar Kureishi the task of getting the PIA Airhostesses’ uniform designed. Mr. Kureishi contacted the famous French designer Pierre Cardin to design the uniform. Cardin came up with such a unique design that it revolutionised flight attendants’ uniforms around the globe. The fawn-coloured summer uniform and the moss-green winter uniform, along with a dupatta, did not just cover heads. It also turned heads!

In September, 1969, the handsome Mr. Shakir Ullah Durrani was made the Managing Director of Pakistan International Airlines. Banker by profession, he decided to invest in human resources development and modernisation of the fleet, by replacing Trident aircraft and adding more Boeing 707 aircraft - and inducting Twin Otters for the first time in the airline’s fleet. His daughter, later well-known, Miss Tehmina Durrani got married to Mr. Anees Ahmed Khan, my friend from Sadiq Public School, Bahawalpur.

Mr. Durrani’s major contribution, however, was in human resources development to give the PIA a new generation of aviation men and women. He, on one hand, hired fresh university graduates as marketing officers and junior executives and on the other hand hired experienced marketing men from foreign airlines like Lufthansa and KLM. I was one of the eight marketing officers selected in May 1970 and joined the PIA’s Ground Training School at Midway House, Karachi Airport. This was one of the leading aviation training Institutes in the world, where cabin crews, as well as marketing, ticketing and traffic staff were trained by highly professional instructors. Apart from Mr. Waseem Bari, the renowned wicket keeper, we had Mr. Masood Naqvi from KLM and Mr. Aslam R. Khan from Lufthansa in our training class. Mr. Aslam R. Khan rose to the position of PIA’s Managing Director (March to May 2008) to be replaced by Captain Aijaz Haroon (2008 – 2011), known to be close to President Zardari.

Our time at the Ground Training School was quite enjoyable. There were dozens of air hostesses under training, who would be our weekend companions to Hawke’s Bay, Paradise Point or Sandspit for picnics. The now famous French Beach did not exist. Then there were cabin crews of scores of other airlines like KLM, Lufthansa, Air France, Alitalia, Swiss Air, SAS and BOAC (Now British Airways), who would be staying in Karachi for a crew change. Whilst the foreign crews stayed in different hotels, the PIA air hostesses stayed at airline’s own facility “The Rock Castle”. Airlines and show-biz were a close knit community and everyone felt safe meeting each other, visiting beaches and crabbing at Kemari in the decorated boats of modern-day Sindbads. Although catching crabs was not a certainty, eating crabs was ensured: because each captain would carry a sufficient supply in his boat to serve his guests.
PIA was one of the first few to show movies on its flights

Left to right - Begum Nur Khan and Air Commodore Malik Nur Khan,
M.D. of the PIA (1959 - 65) - Photo Courtesy - Mr. Yawar Karim

Training at GTS was a highly professional affair that included table manners, telephone courtesy, communication skills, dress codes for each occasion and so on and so forth. Flight kitchen chefs would give lectures on the kind of cuisine, wine, liqueurs and caviars that were served on our flights. PIA duty-free items were very high in quality and the cheapest in the air. The idea was not to make money on the duty-free items but to get repeat customers. PIA was one of the first few, if not the first, to show movies on its flights. On the lighter side we were told interesting stories about airlines and airhostesses who were glamorous in the way that film stars were.

One of our instructors was great at telling airline jokes and cabin crew stories. Some of the jokes he made can be shared, others perhaps not:

BA (British Airways) - “Bloody Awful”

Iran Air - “I Ran Here”

SAS - “Silly And Stupid”

Aeroflot - “Aeroflop”

Air France - “Air Chance”

After six months of training I was posted as sales promotion officer at Club Road Karachi, with Mr. Aslam R. Khan as our Passenger Sales Manager and Mr. Shamim D. Ahmad as District Manager. At that point in time, every Department of the PIA in general, and Marketing in particular, was full of brilliant officers: always eager to guide and help. Only after a few weeks in the field I faced the first test when the PIA Union went on a strike. All the officers in Group Six and above were required to issue flight tickets, book cargo, distribute mail, drive trucks to carry baggage and buses to carry passengers. At ground training school we were given training in all these aspects except for driving trucks and buses. However theoretical training is not sufficient to run an airline operation smoothly. Luckily the higher management and the Union resolved the issue and we were back to our normal duty.
Cardin came up with such a unique design that it revolutionised flight attendants' uniforms around the globe

By the beginning of 1971 the troubles in East Pakistan had already started and there was a fear of hijacking of PIA aircrafts. Some officers from Civil Aviation Authority and PIA were given the assignment of flying on different flights, disguised as passengers, to prevent hijacking. For some odd reason, I was one of those officers picked for the job of a Vigilant Officer. It was a fun job, traveling and living with the cabin crew, all over PIA’s network. Luckily there was no attempt at hijacking, otherwise we would have been totally exposed - as none of us had the courage of Air Marshal Nur Khan, who single-handedly subdued a hijacker at Karachi airport, and got wounded in the process!

In July 1971, Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhry was made the Managing Director of PIA and Mr. Shakir Ullah Durrani got the job of his dreams as the Governor of State Bank of Pakistan. But that assignment was short-lived after Mr. Bhutto came to power. Mr. Bhutto and Mr. Durrani clashed during General Yahya’s regime.  Mr. Bhutto settled the score with Mr. Durrani, who was removed from the Governorship, handcuffed, driven in an open jeep on I.I. Chundrigar road and put under house arrest. No PIA officer ever went to visit Mr. Durrani except for S.D. Leghari and myself.

Airlines provide their staff with free or discounted tickets to travel on their network. But these tickets are on a subject-to-load basis. Revenue passengers get first priority and the staff travels only if seats are available. Once a month I would take advantage of this facility to travel to Lahore over the weekend. On Friday afternoon, the 3rd of December, 1971, I took an Islamabad-bound flight that made a transit stop. Whilst checking in at Hotel Intercontinental I was surprised to find all Islamabad-bound passengers being brought into the hotel lobby. India had attacked West Pakistan. All PIA planes had to fly out to safety. An emergency was declared and all PIA personnel were required to report back to their bases. But how were they to do so? There were no flights and the trains were attacked by the Indian Air force at will! Unlike the 1965 war, Indian aircraft now virtually controlled our skies. The sirens would keep screaming the whole night, whilst frightened and sleepy guests would be rushed to the basement of the hotel. On the evening of the 4th of December I ventured out to the Lahore Railway Station hoping to catch a train to Karachi. The platform was filled with dead and injured brought by a train that had been attacked in the Sialkot sector. In spite of this, I proceeded with this frightful journey that took me 41 hours to reach Karachi. Every time there was the fear of an air strike, all passengers were asked to disembark from the train and run in all directions for cover.

Finally when we reached Karachi, the city was covered under a blanket of thick black smoke coming from an oil depot that had been hit by the Indian air strikes. We never felt so helpless...