Rumour has it that the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is recruiting some foreign nationals in its management to improve its performance, and take the airline out of operational and financial crises. Already the airline has a former Lufthansa employee as its CEO under whose leadership the airline has started to show signs of improvement. Although this has not been well received by a segment of PIA employees, however, if true, this is good news for the national flag carrier. Selection of qualified professionals with proven credentials on operational positions augurs well for the future of PIA. Talent is not the heritage of any nation, nor can it be in this age of globalisation. There was a time when nations battled over land as it was a scarce resource; now countries are competing for acquiring and retaining the finest available talent. This is happening everywhere. Most third world countries including China, India, Malaysia as well as the entire Middle East is hiring and paying for qualified foreign professionals from the international market.
The appointment of a hardcore aviation expert as CEO seems part of government’s overall plan of improving the lot of the ailing airliner, which has bled for years due to negligence, nepotism, and malpractices. Aviation Business Consultants, an advisory firm that provides expert consultation services to its client companies on Pakistan’s aviation sector, has suggested that induction of foreign experts in PIA would help eliminate the culture of political appointments and unaccountability.
PIA’s CEO, Bernd Hildenbrand was initially appointed as the chief operating officer, but after a few months, he has been made the acting CEO. His hiring signals the seriousness of government in its efforts to take the national carrier out of the mess. Though the locals may have the professional ability to perform routine tasks, the need to bring about a swift change in PIA’s standard of service delivery and to bring it to international level requires something more than what they have to offer.
The national carrier has been in the news for all the wrong reasons for so many years now that one is unable to remember the time when the airline was last appreciated for its good work.
PIA used to be the benchmark of quality and carriers like the Emirates had been modelled after it. Things worsened when quality was compromised, and the organisation became another dumping ground for recruits having political affiliations. Consequently, the financial condition deteriorated to the extent that today the airline’s accumulated losses have reached 300 billion rupees.
Government recently got a bill passed by the parliament converting the airline into a public limited company. As per reports, government intends to offload 26 percent shares and enter into a strategic partnership with private stakeholders, but at the same time, has promised not to give away majority shares, not to allow any layoffs and not to give management control to the private sector. Under these circumstances, it is all the more important for PIA to operate under the most talented professionals, preferably the best the market has to offer. Given the ground realities, it is no small thing for any foreigner to leave his homeland and live in a rather challenging environment in Pakistan.
One issue that is raised against the appointment of a foreign professional and has made it controversial is the opinion of the dissenters that this decision would further burden the exchequer. The reality, however, is different. PIA is not the only organisation that has hired foreigners to its team of professionals. Almost every leading international airline is spearheaded by skilled foreigners.
To quote a few examples, Sir Timothy Clark, Chief Executive Officer of Emirates, is a British citizen; CEO and President of Etihad Airways James Hogan is Australian; Chief Commercial Officer of Qatar Airways Hugh Dunleavy is a British national; while the Chief Operating Officer of Fly Dubai, the low-cost carrier owned by the Dubai government, Kenneth L Gile is an American national.
PIA is in the process of hiring more professionals in its management, and there are rumours that a few more foreigners may be considered for some positions. In a statement issued the other day, PIA’s spokesperson said, “PIA is looking for professional aviation industry specialists to provide the airline with expert and experienced management. Standard procedures are being adopted in the selection process, and the board of PIA will take a decision purely on merit based on what is good for the airline, not based on their faith or colour of skin.”
The point is well taken. It is also wrong to say that recruitment of any foreign employee would give a financial jolt to the ailing organisation. It may surprise many that the CEO’s salary is less than that of some officers working under him.
Since the arrival of Hildenbrand, PIA has seen some visible changes, such as improved on-time performance and punctuality, cleanliness of aircraft, and quality of in-flight meals. The average number of daily flights has crossed 120, bringing in more profits and revenue for the airline.
It is perhaps after years that PIA has started hiring people on merit and in a transparent manner rather than by personal affiliations. The significant damage that sapped most of the operational profitability of PIA resulted from the appointment of cronies of one government or the other. The airline has a very high employee-to-aircraft ratio in the world. There are about 400 employees per aircraft while the Emirates has around 220. Moreover, PIA has an extensive setup. It is looking after engineering services, ground handling, cargo management and maintenance departments by itself. Globally, airlines have been outsourcing non-core segments of their operations to make themselves leaner and efficient, but PIA is doing it all by itself.
There had been a lot of clamour when the government made the decision to restructure the airline. A massive strike took place in February, which cost nearly eight billion rupees to the national exchequer, while more than 900 flights were cancelled. It was despite the fact that the Essential Services Act had been in force. Some of these protestors were suffering from job insecurity, while the rest were habitual disclaimers trying to put hurdles in the way to protect their self-interest from the allegation of malpractices.
The government, however, did not yield and with the help of willing workers restarted flight operations. Upon this, the union leaders abruptly and unconditionally called off the strike. Later, the government went ahead with its decision of converting PIA into a limited company making decision-making process simpler.
Six months down the road, once again the lobby that feeds on corruption and inefficiency is raising clamour against the decision of hiring foreign professionals. These elements fear that once decisions are taken on merit and in a transparent manner they would not be able to do things according to their whims. The new business model being introduced in PIA has ushered the airline into a competitive environment where the organisation is striving to lure more customers by providing better quality and dependability at the prevailing market price.
Working in Pakistan may not be a natural choice for Hildenbrand or any other foreigner who chooses to join the national airline, but PIA needs them to bring about improvement in its standard of service delivery.
The writer is a journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org