‘Welcome aboard your flight’ … never mind the pilot might not be qualified!

Imagine boarding a plane (when we can fly again of course) and hearing the following announcement:

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is Zara and I am your chief flight attendant for today’s flight.

Welcome aboard Pakistan International Airlines flight 123, non-stop service from Karachi to Quetta.

Please be advised that with 262 out of 860 Pakistani airline pilots holding fake licenses, there is a:

  • 32.75% chance that one of the pilots flying this plane is not qualified;
  • 10% chance that neither of them is qualified; and
  • 54% chance that one, or both, are not qualified.

Now ladies and gentlemen, sit back and enjoy your flight.

If it weren’t so serious it could be mistaken for something straight out of the classic 1980 movie, Flying High. Unfortunately though, the facts speak for themselves.

So, let’s drill down on this real “fake news” story.

Following the Airbus A320 crash in Pakistan on 22nd May 2020, Aviation Minister, Ghulam Sarqar Khan, told the Pakistani Parliament in his preliminary findings that 262 out of 860 Pakistani pilots had “fake” licenses.

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) alone has sacked 150 pilots for cheating on their exam. Yes, that is correct – 150!!!!!!

Not surprisingly, the revelation sent shockwaves through the Parliament when disclosed. 

whilst the specific details of the scheme to wrongfully obtain licences were not released, Mr Khan did state [the pilots] did not take examinations themselves to get the required certificates.

As reported by the ABC:

What was even more shocking is that insiders revealed that PIA knew of the practice two years earlier when it was discovered that a number of people who had the skills to fly a plane but lacked technical knowledge, had bribed qualified persons to take exams for them.

The initial inquiry was spurred by an investigation into an airliner incident in November 2018, when a PIA-operated Embraer ATR-72 aircraft skidded off the runway in the southwestern town of Panjgur. No one was hurt in the incident, but a subsequent inquiry found the pilot’s license had been issued on a public holiday.

As reported by Aljazeera:

Further investigations led to 17 Pakistani pilots being suspended in January 2019, suspected of committing fraud.

Whilst it has been reported that the Captain at the controls of the plane that crashed on May 22 killing 97 people was qualified, it certainly calls into question the integrity of the aviation industry in Pakistan.

While it’s not news that people try to fake their licenses for various activities, it’s clearly a serious worry when it’s in industries that have a direct impact on the safety of ordinary people. On that basis, I have developed risks for a range of industries that have a similar theme:

AirlineAviation services provided by non-qualified/non-registered personnel
HospitalServices provided within the hospital by non-qualified/non-registered personnel
Medical LaboratoryServices provided within the laboratory by non-qualified/non-registered personnel
Aged Care CentreServices provided within the centre by non-qualified/non-registered personnel

What I do not understand is how, with the potential consequences so high, more controls are not in place to ensure the person taking the test is absolutely verified. In high schools and universities, ID is required before sitting any examination, but that appears not to be the case for pilots in Pakistan.

A PIA spokesman has said the company would make sure “such unqualified pilots never fly aircraft again”.

The safety of passengers was the airline’s top priority.”

Sorry. The fact that PIA had 150 unqualified pilots operating within the airline speaks volumes in terms of a disregard for passengers.  PIA knew of the practice in 2018 – why wasn’t a full audit of qualifications done at that time?

But let’s not forget the other very important player in this situation: the aviation regulator Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority.  Where were they in all of this mess?  They are there to enforce the regulations and to audit for compliance. The International Air Transport Association said it was following reports from Pakistan regarding fake pilot licences, which are concerning and represent a serious lapse in the licensing and safety oversight by the aviation regulator.

The ramifications from this scandal are not just confined to Pakistan, with the Vietnamese aviation regulator ordering all domestic airlines within Vietnam to ground Pakistani pilots, and there is likely more to follow.

I am certain there will be more revelations exposed as time goes on.  My biggest fear is that it is not just limited to Pakistan.  Let’s hope it has been a wake-up call for aviation regulators across the world.

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