US revokes Pakistani airline’s authorisation over safety concerns

Authorities had found 262 Pakistani pilots obtained licences fraudulently, a claim disputed by national pilots’ body.

A Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) passenger plane arrives at the Benazir International airport in Islamabad, Pakistan, December 2, 2015. Employees of Pakistan''s ailing
The US Department of Transportation revoked the authorisation to operate 12 flights from and to the US to repatriate Pakistani citizens stranded in the US due to the coronavirus pandemic [File: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – US authorities have revoked authorisation for Pakistan’s state-owned airline to conduct flights to and from the country based on concerns regarding the authenticity of pilot licences, an airline spokesman says.

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) had been authorised earlier this year to conduct 12 direct flights to and from the United States to allow repatriation of Pakistani citizens stranded in that country due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, the US Department of Transportation (US DoT) revoked that authorisation, with seven flights operated and five still pending, PIA spokesman Abdullah Khan told Al Jazeera.

According to an internal PIA email, seen by Al Jazeera, the US DoT identified “‘recent events identified by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority that are of serious concern to aviation safety’, specifically matters pertaining to the proper certification of certain Pakistani pilots” as the reason for the revocation.

On June 25, Pakistani Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan said authorities had found 262 Pakistani pilots – almost a third of all licensed pilots in the country – had obtained their licences fraudulently, a claim strenuously challenged by pilots’ groups.

The Pakistani national carrier suspended 150 pilots after questions over the authenticity of their licences emerged. Earlier, an initial investigation found human error was primarily responsible for a PIA plane crash that killed 98 people in southern Pakistan in May.

The announcement prompted widespread outcry, with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) suspending PIA’s third country operator authorisation to fly to European destinations days later.

Several national civil aviation authorities, including those in Vietnam, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates have written to the Pakistani Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) to verify the licences of pilots serving in those countries.

EASA has also written to European countries’ civil aviation authorities asking them to suspend Pakistani pilots pending further verification of their credentials.

The aviation ministry’s allegations appear to centre around discrepancies in written examination dates, flagging pilots who were logged to have taken the exams on the same days as having flown flights, or on public holidays.

Several pilots told Al Jazeera that they did not dispute that they had flown later in the same day as their exams, but said this was a “normal practice” and did not contravene any regulations.

Earlier this week, the PCAA suspended the licences of 34 pilots over the issue. Seventeen previous suspensions of this kind, issued in January 2019, have been challenged in court, with hearings continuing.

PIA, once a pioneering airline in international commercial aviation, discontinued flying to US destinations in 2017, citing financial considerations due to being forced by US security regulations to stop at European destinations on the way.

The seven repatriation flights were the first time a Pakistani airline has ever flown direct flights to and from the US, spokesman Abdullah Khan told Al Jazeera, saying the airline had been hoping to secure permanent authorisation after the coronavirus pandemic.

Pakistani authorities initiated the process of applying for that authorisation from the US Transportation Safety Administration last year, with US inspectors conducting audits at Pakistani airports in July 2019.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim

Wreckage of state run Pakistan International Airlines, Airbus A320 is lying amid houses of a residential colony days after it crashed, in Karachi, Pakistan, 24 May 2020. The death toll in a plane cras
An initial investigation found human error was primarily responsible for a PIA plane crash that killed 98 people in southern Pakistan in May [Shahzaib Akber/EPA]
Source: Al Jazeera