The rise and fall of PIA - VI

Akhtar Mummunka tells the tale of PIA, as he experienced it, and how the airline went into a nose-dive

The rise and fall of PIA - VI
By the end of 1982, most of the middle, senior and top management - consisting of aviation technocrats - was gone from PIA. Major General Rahim Khan replaced Mr. Enver Jamall as Chairman, and Air Vice Marshal Waqar Azeem replaced Mufti Muhammad Salim as the Managing Director. Air Commodore M. Salim, a close relative of General Zia-ul-Haq, was appointed as the General Manager of PIA in New York. These gentlemen may have been good at their respective jobs but they were clueless about the airline business.  The airline business is extremely sensitive and highly scientific because an airline seat, much like a hotel room, is a perishable commodity. It cannot be stored. Similarly, salesmen are not soldiers; they need motivation, not orders to perform. Over the years, PIA was managed by people with the right connections but the wrong background. They all failed. Expecting a PIA captain to run a commercial organisation is like asking a locomotive driver to run an entire railway system. I have known of managing directors asking their subordinates to teach them how to run PIA. Who would respect such bosses?  Unlike Air Marshal Nur Khan, the new management lacked the ability to manage highly skilled employees.  To compensate for their incompetence, they followed a policy of creating fear and job insecurity amongst the employees. Even the directors and general managers in the head office were afraid to support their field force, and as a result, the initiative to sell was gone.

The author's travelogue, 'Paris 205 Kilometres'

Under Air Marshal Nur Khan, PIA had been an aggressively progressive airline, but then the expansion plans stopped. Pan Am World Airways and TWA (Trans World Airlines) are classic examples of airlines that shut down due to the slashing of routes. PIA followed a perfect recipe for disaster by cutting routes and diverting flights from established stations like Frankfurt to Zurich on the Trans Atlantic Route. Penny wise and pound foolish: austerity measures taken by various managements proved counterproductive. Political appointees gave foreign airlines access to PIA’s backyard for their own personal gains. Thai Airways International now operates nearly 15 flights a week from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to Bangkok and beyond, whereas PIA operates none. Likewise, the Gulf carriers are given traffic rights from every Pakistani city and town, in exchange for providing catering services. Today, Thai Airways is our national carrier to the East, while Emirates, an airline launched under the training of PIA employees, is our national carrier to the West.

Left to Right - The author, the Egyptian Minister of Aviation and his wife,
the General Manager of TWA

Cairo was an important station on PIA’s transatlantic route, with four Jumbo flights transiting through each week. There were also regular cargo flights carrying fresh fruits and vegetables from Egypt to various European destinations. It was in Cairo that PIA’s cockpit crew stayed at Hotel Ramses Hilton, and the cabin crew lodged at Hotel Novotel. It was for the slip of cabin crew that Mr. Kuval Nain, General Manager of Mena House Oberoi, a five-star property near the Pyramids, came to me with a very lucrative offer. Mr. Nain was born at the Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore, when the property belonged to the Oberoi family. His love for Lahore was a great motivating factor in his keenness for hosting the PIA crew at Mena House.  He offered PIA exclusive transport for crew pick-and-drop and a much lower room rate compared to Novotel. For the fifty odd rooms, per night, as required for the cabin crew, PIA saved thousands of US dollars per month by shifting to Mena House.

From better days

Salesmen are not soldiers; they need motivation, not orders to perform. Over the years, PIA was managed by people with the right connections but the wrong background

The salary of PIA’s Egyptian staff had not been increased for the last three years, despite repeated promises by the management. According to Egyptian law, the staff could not go on strike but could “go slow”. Perhaps Egyptians need little encouragement to proceed slowly and when an Egyptian “goes slow”, it is the equivalent of a strike! The staff problem had to be addressed urgently but the situation in the head office was such that I could not even expect support from my own marketing department. Nevertheless, I went to the head office in Karachi to plead a genuine case on behalf of the Cairo station. The Finance Director, luckily, was very positive and he immediately approved the proposed increase in salaries, making the increase effective as of the previous month to compensate the staff. But for that generosity I was asked to resolve the issue of transfer of funds. Due to the shortage of foreign exchange, the State Bank of Egypt had restricted all airlines to transfer of funds out of Egypt. PIA also had a couple of million Egyptian Pounds in its account that could not be transferred. That was the main reason for the crew slip in Cairo to utilise those funds locally.

The Egyptian staff were jubilant to have their salaries increased and were willing to go out of their way to help PIA. Our assistant station manager, Madam Zizi, who could easily pass for Cleopatra, was married to a serving Egyptian general, making her the most effective person at Cairo airport. She made sure that our flights were not delayed anymore. Had David Lean seen Muhammad Shahata, our sales manager, he certainly would have chosen him over Omer Sharif for the role of Ali in his epic film Lawrence of Arabia.  Mr. Saad Ibrahim, the senior-most local manager, had been with PIA since the Cairo crash and was considered the guru of the aviation industry in Egypt. It was through his connections that we got all our funds transferred to PIA’s account within a few months.

In December 1982 my Urdu travelogue, Paris 205 Kilometres was published by Sang-e-Meel publications, and Kishwer Naheed organised the book launch in Lahore. Mr. Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi presided over the function that was attended by the Pakistani literary elite, including Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ashfaq Ahmad Khan, Bano Qudsia, Zaheer Babar, Dr. Agha Sohail, Zeeno, Munu Bhai, Mustansar Husain Tarar, Amjad Islam Amjad, Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi, Azhar Javed, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Dr. Envar Sejjad and Zulifqar Tabish. A friend organized a dinner party after the function and Kishwar Naheed asked me to personally phone and invite Faiz sahib for the party. Faiz sahib gave a very poetic reply to my telephonic invitation, “Bhai, jaam uthaney ko shaam hee kyun zaroori hey?” (Why is it necessary for it to be evening for us to raise glasses?)

The Pakistan Food Festival was a unique concept introduced by PIA to promote Pakistani cuisine and culture in foreign countries. PIA would provide chefs, ingredients and a cultural troupe, whilst the partner hotel would provide accommodation, kitchen facilities, local promotion and a number of free meals to our guests. After the weeklong festival, the income was equally divided between the hotel and PIA. I exploited the Lahori sentiments of Mr. Kaval Nain and organised a Pakistan Food Festival at Mena House Oberoi. The Egyptian Minister of Aviation was the chief guest whilst the entire diplomatic corps and travel trade representatives were present on the opening night. Cairo, being the headquarters of BCCI’s (Bank of Credit and Commerce International) Africa operations, had over 100 Pakistani families stationed there. Every night, we had a full capacity of Pakistani and Egyptian families enjoying Pakistani food and folk culture. As the head of every multinational and foreign bank in Egypt was a Pakistani, the festival was extended at their request.

Spain and Egypt, the two countries of my foreign postings, were considered the Mecca of tourism, and my stay there triggered my gypsy genes to move from aviation to tourism. Meanwhile, a lot of my Spanish friends had become big names in out-bound tourism, particularly to India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. Tourism was fast growing into a leading industry of the 21st century and Pakistan with its unparalleled tourism treasures deserved its rightful share of the tourism market. In 1984, I resigned from PIA to start up my own tourism company, Indus Guides. To express my gratitude to PIA, I placed quarter-page ads in Dawn and the Pakistan Times, reading, “THANK YOU PIA!”