Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has suspended 150 pilots after questions over the authenticity of their licences emerged, a spokesman told Al Jazeera.
The announcement comes a day after an initial investigation found human error was primarily responsible for a PIA plane crash that killed 98 people in southern Pakistan last month.
“Out of our 434 pilots, 150 will be grounded as of today,” PIA spokesman Abdullah Khan told Al Jazeera by telephone from Karachi, where the crash took place on May 22.
“It will totally cripple us. But we cannot take risks with this.”
Thursday’s suspensions will remain until investigations can be carried out to verify the authenticity of the pilots’ licences. The airline will primarily look into allegations that the pilots did not sit for the examinations themselves and sent others instead.
“We are following reports from Pakistan regarding fake pilot licenses, which are concerning and represent a serious lapse in the licensing and safety oversight by the aviation regulator. We are trying to obtain more information on the matter,” the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said in a statement on Friday.
Seventeen pilots were suspended in January 2019 over similar allegations following a probe into an air crash in the southwestern Pakistani town of Panjgur – where a plane carrying 43 passengers careered off the runway after making an unsafe approach – said Khan. No one was injured in that incident.
PIA acknowledges the AAIB report and have already taken measures learning from it. An independent Flight Data Monitoring setup established to monitor & analyze all flights. All pilots with dubious licenses will be grounded. Safety is more imp. than any commercial interest
— PIA (@Official_PIA) June 24, 2020
On Wednesday, Pakistani aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan told Parliament that 262 of Pakistan’s 860 active, licensed pilots had been found to have suspect licences.
“[They] were found not to have given their exams themselves,” said Khan. “They give money and have a dummy candidate sit in their place.”
On May 22, 98 people were killed when a PIA Airbus A320 crashed into a residential neighbourhood about 1.4km (0.9 miles) from Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport.
The initial investigation report, released by Khan on Wednesday, said “human error” by the aircraft’s pilots and air traffic controllers was primarily to blame for the crash.
Crash report disputed
The Pakistan Air Line Pilots Association (PALPA) disputed the report’s findings, with a spokesperson telling Al Jazeera it was not satisfied that there had been pilots trained to fly the same model aircraft involved in the investigation.
PALPA did not offer any immediate comment on Thursday’s licence suspensions.
The air accident investigation board’s initial report found that the pilot involved in the May 22 crash had ignored three warnings from air traffic control regarding the aircraft’s excessive altitude and speed during approach.
The aircraft attempted a landing without its landing gear in place, causing its engines to hit the runway three times before the pilot lifted off again, the report said.
On his second approach, the pilot reported that both engines – damaged by the impact with the runway – had failed. The aircraft crashed into a dense residential neighbourhood just short of the airport on its second approach, killing 97 of the 99 people on board.
A child, who was in one of the 29 homes destroyed by the crash, was also killed, hospital officials told Al Jazeera.
Aviation Minister Khan said a government inquiry was ongoing into all 262 alleged cases of fraud in obtaining pilots licences.
PIA’s spokesman told Al Jazeera that any pilots found to have lied about their credentials “will be terminated”.
State-owned PIA is the largest of Pakistan’s commercial air carriers, with smaller airlines Serene Air and Air Blue taking up most of the rest of the country’s air traffic.
Representatives for those airlines – whose pilots were also included in the list of alleged “dubious” licence holders – were not immediately available for comment.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.