The rise and fall of PIA - II

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

The rise and fall of PIA - II
On the 16th of December, 1971, the fall of Dhaka delivered a serious blow to PIA’s network and finances. Air Marshal Zafar Chaudhry got unnerved, leased out some aircrafts, cut down on routes and wanted to shunt-out half of the employees. Indeed, that was the easy way out. Mr. Bhutto smartly appointed a business tycoon Mr. Rafique Saigol as the Managing Director in 1972. I remember attending a meeting of highly demoralised officers at PIA’s Head Office, which was addressed by the newly appointed Managing Director. It was a one-line speech: no employee of PIA was going to be fired. And true enough, no one was fired. PIA bounced back and came out of the red. But then the inevitable happened. Mr Saigol had an affair with an airhostess and lost interest in the affairs of the airline. Unions got strong and the administration got weak. The discovery of a rat in a PIA aircraft, perhaps common now, caused Mr. Saigol’s dismissal.

Air Marshal Nur Khan was a role model for young officers of PIA and our sales team at the Club Road office was very keen to meet him in person. We requested our colleague cricketer Hanif Muhammad, the famed ‘little master’, to take us for a meeting.  Next to our office on Club Road was the Head Office of SASA International (Pvt) Limited, an advertising company owned by painter Laila Shehazada and her husband Shehzada Ahmed Shah. Air Marshal Nur Khan was married to Shehazada Ahmed Shah’s sister Begum Farhat and at that time sat in SASA’s office.  We followed the aroma of Habana Cigars and went straight to the office of a man, who even in retirement, looked and sounded like a born leader.  He was the most inspiring man that I have ever met. It was in his office that I met Laila Shehazada for the first time and invited her to the opening of my paintings exhibition at Rahamani’s Gallery on Drig Road (Shahrah-e-Faisal). Laila came to the exhibition along with my school art teacher Mr. Ali Imam and the renowned painter Gulgee. It was a great honour for me to have such great painters at my exhibition but the purpose of her visit was totally different. She asked me to model for SASA.  As an employee of PIA , I could not model without the permission of  the Head Office. But she, perhaps through Air Marshal Nur Khan, got me the permission and I started modeling. Apart from modeling and painting I was also writing regular articles in Akhbar-e-Jahan, a popular weekly Urdu magazine published by the Jang Group.

"Jewelry of Pakistan" - 1973 calendar from PIA

Mr. Z.A. Bhutto was rebuilding Pakistan on very innovative lines and he put the ACT (Aviation – Culture – Tourism) together to attract petrodollars. Raja Tridev Roy - the head of the Chakma tribe of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, who opted to remain in Pakistan after 1971 - was made the minister for Tourism and Mr. Ardeshir Cowasjee, a Parsi businessman and writer was appointed Managing Director of PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation). Karachi, already a hub of aviation, was to be the most advanced metropolis of the region, with a casino along the Arabian Sea coast. Air Marshal Nur Khan, the aviation magician, was appointed as the Chairman of Pakistan International Airlines with full powers. Mr. Zia Mohyeddin, a renowned showbiz personality was given charge of PIA’s Arts Academy to introduce Pakistani culture abroad.  PIA Arts Academy had amazing artists like Nahid Siddiqui, Parween Qasim, Rehana Hakeem, Faiz Balooch, Khamisoo Khan and scores of others, who enthralled the audience around the globe. PIA was not only a model airline for others to follow but it had become a trendsetter in many, diverse fields. The uniform for its airhostesses revolutionised women’s fashion in Pakistan. PIA calendars became such a craze, locally and internationally, that in spite of doubling the quantity it was hard to meet the demand. Thus began the golden era of Pakistan and PIA.
Expansion of PIA was the key word with the new management

Air Marshal Nur Khan, having served as a Governor of West Pakistan, now had vast experience in administration. All the directors of PIA were asked to hand in their resignations and thereafter he reappointed them to ensure their gratitude and loyalty. Mr. Enver Jamall, an aviation veteran from Tata Airlines, who had worked in PIA with him earlier, was rehired as Managing Director to rebuild the airline. Expansion of PIA was the key word with the new management. Apart from operating flights to new destinations, eight offline offices were opened in Latin America, USA and Europe. The objective of opening these offices was to collect first-hand marketing information for future expansion and training young officers. Mr. M. Aslam Khan, Special Assistant to the Chairman, called us for a briefing meeting in the Head Office. His briefing was very brief and specific: “Gentlemen! You are lucky to get this breakthrough but remember that failure is not an option and excuses are not acceptable to the Management. Six months is all that you have to learn the local language, establish a PIA office and earn enough to support yourself and your local staff. Thank you.” We were handed over power of attorney, a transfer letter and tickets to our destination. I was transferred to Madrid, Spain.

Captain Abdullah being welcomed by Air Marshal Nur Khan, after setting the
Fastest Flying record between London and Karachi

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Raja Tridev Roy

Air Marshal Nur Khan, the aviation magician, was appointed as the Chairman of Pakistan International Airlines with full powers

I was in Madrid for barely 3 months when Mr. Aslam R. Khan, my regional director based in Rome, informed me that Air Marshal Nur Khan was to visit Spain in two weeks! Mr. Aslam Khan and I did a marathon race to visit Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Barcelona and Toledo - the likely places that the Air Marshal could visit apart from Madrid. The head office moved with him where ever he traveled. PIA managers all over Europe and UK were on high alert. As per the protocol I informed Air Marshal Rahim Khan, the Ambassador of Pakistan in Spain, about the visit of Chairman PIA. Incidentally, Air Marshal Rahim Khan was the Chief of Air Staff during 1971 War. A few days before the arrival of Air Marshal Nur Khan I received two very disturbing instructions from the Head Office: First of all, I was forbidden to give any information to the Pakistan Embassy about the Chairman’s visit to Spain and secondly that I was to fly immediately to Mallorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean, to receive and escort Begum Farhat Nur Khan and her daughter Nighat Nur Khan. You can imagine my plight being caught in the crossfire between two Air Marshals and escorting Begum Nur Khan – who was known for her short temper! The first instruction that I received from Begum Sahiba after check-in was to get Ms. Nighat’s broken suitcase repaired. Getting a broken suitcase repaired in Pakistan was no big deal, but not so on a Spanish island. Communication was a major problem because I had not learned the Spanish language by then and very few Spaniards spoke English. So how do I get a suitcase repaired within one hour? The front office manager at the hotel helped me resolve the problem. He told me that repairing such a broken suitcase would cost almost the same as buying a new one. So I bought a similar suitcase from the market and lied to Begum Sahiba that I had got the new suitcase in exchange for the broken suitcase by just paying US$ 3 extra. She willingly paid me that amount and appreciated my initiative. The remaining time in Mallorca was very peaceful and Begum Sahiba was very happy with me. But trouble was brewing in the Pakistan Embassy, Madrid…

The author with Naheed Siddiqui and friends at his paintings exhibition

Air Marshal Nur Khan was booked at Hotel Villa Magna on Paseo de la Castellana, a 5-star property barely a block away from the Pakistan Embassy. But neither of us was permitted, as mentioned earlier, to pass any information about the Chairman’s schedule. The Air Marshal enjoyed busy schedules and interaction with media and we had done exactly what he liked. First of all the President of Iberia, the national carrier of Spain, invited Air Marshal Nur Khan and his entourage to a lavish lunch. Iberia made a presentation about their new project “Puente Aereo” or Air Bridge between Madrid and Barcelona. This sector has the heaviest traffic in Europe, with over seventy flights per day and as such the concept was ideal for frequently travelling businessmen. Under this concept, there was no need to book the flight because there was a flight available after every half hour.

The Air Marshal was quick to introduce to the Iberia President PIA’s legendary Captain Abdullah Baig, who in 1962 created a world record by flying a Boeing 720-B from London to Karachi in the shortest time (6 hours, 45 minutes and 33 seconds). Captain Abdullah, who now worked at London Heathrow, gave an excellent presentation about PIA’s new logo in Urdu and the gold and green livery being painted on the Boeing 747 leased and then purchased from TAP, the Portuguese airline. The long lunch was followed by a press conference jointly addressed by Chairman PIA and President Iberia. The massive press coverage of the following morning immensely pleased Air Marshal Nur Khan but Air Marshal Rahim Khan was fuming with fire and I could feel the heat!

Lucero Tena with Muhammad Ali

Two ads that appeared in the popular monthly Urdu magazine 'Dhanak'

Air Marshal Nur Khan desired to invite his entourage, around 20 persons, for dinner and a Flamenco show. Chairman PIA believed in the best - so it had to be the best. I booked a prime table at Corral de la Moreria, certainly the most famous club in Madrid for Tablao Flamenco. Ms. Lucero Tena was the principal dancer at the club and I knew her very well because of my friend Nahid Siddiqui the famous Pakistani Kathak dancer. Locero Tena and Nahid, both great dancers, had become friends during PIA’s dance troupe’s visit to Spain in 1973. In view of my friendship I was sure to get a great protocol from her but the time of her performance was the only stumbling block. Nur Khan was an early bird and Lucero Tena, being the principal dancer, never performed before midnight. She put me at ease, “Bring him over, I will take care of the rest.” And for sure she took care. Dressed in a beautiful sari, she personally received the Air Marshal and his family and escorted them to the table.  Flower bouquets were presented to his wife and daughter, a special announcement about him was made and then she seated herself on our table. She was a charmer who enchanted everyone with her smiles. Her explanation about the art of Flamenco was very rewarding and informative. Dinner was very elaborate, particularly carne asada (roast lamb), the specialty of the club. At the end of the dinner came a gift box with the engraving, “specially rolled for Nur Khan”. The box contained his favorite Habana cigars. Her one-hour performance was simply superb but her master stroke came right at the end of the show when she requested the Air Marshal to come on stage. I really did not know what to expect. The Austrian ambassador was at the club to present her an award on behalf of his Government. She very smartly managed to jointly receive the award from Air Marshal Nur Khan and the Austrian ambassador.