United States Becomes Latest To Ban PIA Over License Scandal

The fallout over the fake license scandal at Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is growing. The United States has now joined the European Union in banning the airline from its airspace. Today, US authorities broke the bad news to PIA: the airline will not be flying into the United States anytime soon.

The United States has banned PIA from its airspace for six months. Photo: Aleksandr Markin via Wikimedia Commons

At the time of writing, there is no formal notification of the ban posted by either the FAA or the Department of Transportation. Pakistan was reportedly advised of the United States ban by email. The ban stands for six months and is attributed to issues with pilot licenses. Also affected are the special flight licenses previously issued to PIA by the United States.

The ban by the United States and the duration aligns it with the position taken by Europe’s aviation authority. The UAE has also suspended flights from Pakistan.

Minister believes about one-third of PIA’s pilots have ‘dubious’ licenses

In late June, PIA suspended 150 pilots over concerns about the authenticity of their licenses. In early July, the European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) suspended PIA’s authorization to operate in Europe for six months.

The license scandal is the latest in a series of blows for the airline. PIA has lost money for the last 15 years. In 2019, its liabilities stood at US$3.8 billion. In May, a PIA A320 crashed in Karachi, killing 97 people. Investigators have blamed the crash on pilot error. The validity or otherwise of the pilot’s licenses remains unconfirmed.

Pilot error is blamed for a fatal PIA crash in Karachi in May. Photo: Getty Images

There have been three fatal crashes in Pakistan in the past decade attributed to pilot error. Pakistan’s Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan believes up to one-third of Pakistan’s pilots have “dubious” licenses. A report in The Print says 262 of over 850 pilots in Pakistan have dodgy licenses. Many didn’t sit the required exams.

. . . 262 pilots in the country did not take the exam themselves and had paid someone else to sit it on their behalf. They don’t have flying experience. PIA has grounded all its pilots who hold fake licenses, effective immediately,Minister Khan said.

But as PIA notes, this issue isn’t just their problem. Fake pilot licenses are endemic across the wider Pakistani aviation industry.

Tricky to get a firm fix on the numbers

Yet these numbers appear as rubbery as some of the licenses. Getting a firm fix on exactly how many pilots this scandal involves is a tricky business. As of yesterday, PIA had grounded 140 pilots it had concerns about. Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority had also suspended the licenses of a further 34 PIA pilots.

EASA wants airlines in its 32 member states to ban their Pakistani pilots from flying and wants details on all Pakistani captains they have on their books.

Getting a firm fix on the number of dodgy licenses issued is tough. Photo: Lord of the Wings via Wikimedia Commons

The special PIA flights into the United States prematurely end

Meanwhile, tentative moves by PIA into the United States market are on ice. The airline had permission to operate 12 special direct flights to the United States this year following exhaustive negotiations.

PIA had hoped the success of those flights would lead to permission for permanent direct flights. To date, seven of the twelve flights have operated. But the United States Government now advises the remaining five flights will not happen.

The current scandal is not the first time PIA has had problems with pilot licenses. It is a recurring issue. But this time, because of the numbers involved, the scandal is getting traction. If it is found the pilots operating the PIA flight that crashed in May held fake licenses, you could expect the scandal to widen a lot further.