America’s Federal Aviation Administration has downgraded Pakistan’s safety rating to category 2. It is a serious but not unexpected blow to a country with a scandal-plagued aviation sector. The downgrade means no Pakistani airlines can establish new services to the United States or codeshare with US airlines.
The FAA’s decision follows a fatal Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) crash in Karachi in May. More recently, up to one-third of Pakistan’s commercial pilots were discovered to be holding “dubious” licenses.
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Another blow to PIA and Pakistan’s aviation sector
In early July, Europe’s aviation safety regulator, EASA, suspended PIA’s authorization to fly into its member country’s airports. Last week, the United States made a similar decision, denying PIA access to the United States for six months.
Now, the FAA’s decision has effectively locked PIA out of the United States. The ruling only impacts new services to the United States, But PIA does not have any existing services across the Atlantic to the United States. According to timetable data, the airline does fly to Toronto several times a week.
As far as can be ascertained, no United States airline operates codeshare or interline agreements with PIA.
Longstanding security issues have thwarted PIA’s ambitions to access the United States. However, PIA had tentatively planned a service to begin between Islamabad and New York earlier this year. The downturn in travel derailed that. Now, safety issues are joining the list of concerns.
“Pakistan has been assigned a Category 2 rating because it does not comply with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) safety standards under the FAA’s International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program,” says an FAA statement.
Pakistan gets on a list no country wants to be on
The ICAO is the United Nations technical agency for aviation. It sets international standards and recommended safety practices for aircraft operations and maintenance.
A category one rating means an airline complies with ICAO’s standards and safety practices. Subject to bilateral agreements, that enables an airline to fly into the United States and codeshare with US airlines.
Like a lot of lists out of the United States, the FAA category two list is a one no country wants to be on. Pakistan joins category two countries like Bangladesh, Ghana, Malaysia, Thailand, and Venezuela.
A licensing scandal and fatal crash drive the FAA’s decision
Driving the FAA decision was a scandal involving hundreds of Pakistani pilots been issued with fake licenses and going on to operate commercial aircraft. Speaking to Pakistan’s parliament in June, the country’s aviation minister, Ghulam Sarqar Khan, said 262 out of 860 Pakistani pilots had licenses of “dubious” origins.
Key among the allegations were student pilots paying other people to sit exams for them. Following the revelations, PIA suspended 150 of its pilots. PIA said the problem was endemic across Pakistan and not restricted to PIA. However, reports indicate PIA was aware of the license problem for two years.
Europe’s EASA promptly asked its member countries to hand over details about Pakistan trained pilots they employed.
Casting a shadow over this was a fatal PIA crash in May. A PIA A320 flying from Karachi to Lahore crashed shortly after takeoff into a residential area. Over one hundred people died. Investigations reveal pilot error caused the crash. It is unknown whether the licenses of the pilots on this flight were illegitimately issued.
With issues like these swirling around Pakistan’s aviation sector, getting the coveted FAA category one status back may be harder than losing it.