PIA ON UPSURGE AFTER LOW KEY GOLDEN JUBILEE

Tariq Kirmani has lost little time in launching national airline towards a goal of progress, prosperity and modernisation

By KHALID BUTT, Lahore
Jan 09 - 22, 2006

PIA, the national flag-carrier, after its surprisingly quiet golden jubilee year, is on a welcome upsurge, thanks to its youthful and innovative new supremo - Tariq Kirmani. The occasion therefore calls for a dispassionate look at the national airline both historically and on its current state of renaissance.

PIA has a poor record for proper celebrations of its important milestones. The only exception was its 20th anniversary of services to China, which was converted into a memorable occasion in the mid eighties. A special flight was operated from Karachi to Beijing in which all former heads of PIA, its former country managers who served in China, members of the Board of Directors, former Pakistan Ambassadors to China including the first-ever envoy - late Gen. A.G. Raza - besides foreign tour operators and journalists were invited as guests by the airline. China too warmly reciprocated treating the invited guests as official guests for whom the then President of China hosted an official banquet at the Great Hall of People.

A golden jubilee is a special occasion and one certainly has to remember, savour and celebrate. One is not sure why the PIA management forgot to let it go or was it due to economic reasons, one is not sure.

It had taken a dozen years after independence to create a worthy airline fit to be called the national flag-carrier. In the nascent years both Orient Airways and Pak Airways had battled out with a small fleet of piston-engine aircraft and in a pioneering spirit as the aviation industry started to take off in the post World War-II years. The monopoly of the Europeans and American airlines was to face challenge from the emerging airlines notably of Asia. In this scenario PIA started off with the acquisition of its Lockheed 1011 (Super Connies), Convairs, Dakotas and later Viscounts, Boeings and Tridents and Fokkers.

It was launched as an intercontinental airline with Super Connies with services to London via Cairo, Geneva and other intermediary stops. Quite surprisingly its first Canadian Chief Executive hired by the then management a chap called Mcgreggor later turned out to be a 'phoney' with no known credentials. How he was able to dupe those who hired him then still remains a deep mystery. But he was only eased out after a respectable period of time to avoid any unnecessary scandal or controversy. The gentleman many years later had also been invited to Pakistan and visited PIA to wonder and marvel at the behemoth it had become. PIA was however never short of its home-grown men of vision, experience and requisite professional skill. The names of some pioneers associated with the industry which easily come to mind were towering personalities like Enver Jamall, Mufti Saleem, Sattoo Kureishi, Aijaz Ali, and above all M.M. Isphani, who had founded Orient Airways and PIA had many years later named its wide-body hanger as "Isphani Hanger" to honour its founding Chairman. Then came Zafar-ul-Ahsan, a remarkable civil servant, who did a commendable job to get the airline take off on foreign routes. But the real turnaround came with the arrival of the then Air Commodore Nur Khan, who can be aptly called its real builder and architect who set it on a path of growth, modernisation and international recognition.

It was his vision which made PIA an industry trend-setter and scored many firsts against more established airlines of repute. His six years plus first tenure saw PIA reach many new milestones and recognised as an airline which became a status symbol and pride of Pakistan the world over. His successor, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, too will be remembered for his solid contribution to expand and consolidate PIA under his command. However, this remarkable era of growth and excellence was followed by some highly forgettable years under indifferent managements which figured personalities who either lacked required ability or had other agendas to pursue.

S.U. Durrani, inducted by Ayub Khan and later backed by Yahya Khan, was out to use airline to ekk out his own career at the expense of airline. He succeeded in becoming the Governor State Bank, although his sights were historically set at becoming the country's Finance Minister.

The arrival of Air Marshal Zafar Choudhry saw PIA in deep trouble and only providence saved it from the unmitigated disaster it was destined to had the stipulated plan been implemented made by the then management. Rafiq Saigol, plucked from the private sector by ZAB, brought a breath of fresh air, as he saved the airline with his innovative leadership and astute planning. It was he who brought PIA to wide-bodied jet age, expanding and modernising it and restoring its financial health. Thereafter followed another stint by Air Marshal Nur Khan, which saw its growth sustained and its period of consolidation continued under a highly professional management team, he had created. Two of his team members namely Enver Jamall and Mufti Saleem, from within the industry were destined to head airline with distinction and prove that Nur Khan's confidence in them was fully justified.

But the process of politicalisation and balatant interference by the respective regimes more so under Zia-ul-Haq, brought the resultant chaos, confrontation and indiscipline within the ranks of organisation which was inevitable. The management, the professionals and majority of airline employees haplessly saw this phenomenon with horror and things turned ugly like elsewhere in the country to enable the regime implement its "planned coup" and promulgate MLR-52 with all its subsequent malignant after-effects. Then came Maj Gen Rahim Khan and his team of storm troopers to play havoc with the airline which took many years to heal. The arrival of people like Daudpota did not help either as he too had his own agenda to induct people of his peculiar choice and make illogical decisions in his highly forgettable tenure, which came to as sudden and inglorious an end as it had begun.

Another industry insider Nawaz Tiwana was an upright man who would not take any nonsense from anyone and despite his deep roots in airline was sidelined in due course of time. AVM Farooq Umar, the dynamic newcomer from PAF, coped with the challenges manfully and worked hard and diligently to uplift the airline in his own unique style. He would be credited to save PIA from growing pressures and challenges of ill-advised "Open Sky" policy and the serious legal tangle in which the airline found itself after Kathmandu crash facing an ominous human error charge. His tenacious handling of both issues was most praiseworthy.

Nawaz Tiwana came back for a second tenure to head PIA but again found goings difficult. This was mainly due to prevailing political turmoil in the country and the most absurd interference and obstacles created by the MOD. However, he kept his reputation intact as an upright and honest man. That he was made to serve as head of such organisations like Port Qasim, Cement Corporation of Pakistan by the Federal Government, spoke of his acumen as a top administrator of high repute. Even to date he continues to serve on many boards of directors, after retiring from PIA, which speaks of his high calibre and it was a shame he was never given a free hand to run PIA.

A brief stint by Malik Sher Afghan, brought from private sector, saw PIA once again turning a new leaf. With his reputation to turnaround many sick commercial organisations in Middle East, he worked hard to quickly restore PIA's health. But it was not to the liking of MOD, then headed by a former ISI chief, who along with others in the Ministry had different designs. Poor Sher Afgan, a thorough professional and a man of high integrity, tried to fight out the heavy odds but in the end gave up. And like Rafiq Saigol, has never publically spoken a word about the heavily loaded dice against them, which included some "engineered" strikes in the airline and other underhand methods. He has been a true gentleman and my mind goes out to him the way he was shabbily treated although I know the people at top who later realised and duly apologised after they discovered the true story.

Then came finally the saga of another private sector figure, inducted in PIA, namely Chaudhry Ahmad Saeed. His tenure is marked by an all out support by the Federal Government to restore PIA's health. As he put it himself in a TV interview, a new airline could be easily created with less money than what was infused in PIA. It all seemed to have gone down the drain, considering in what poor shape and form he left it. His only contribution was to rid it from the clutches of MOD. His loud claim that he never drew a rupee as salary or other emoluments and even bought his own tickets for travel does not impress me. I consider this hogwash as this means you are avoiding accountability as these overheads are but small change in the whole mega game. I would rather have someone get paid well according to market standards but deliver in the end, which Saeed apparently conveniently tried to avoid to leave PIA in a far bigger mess with his crude style of management and virtually 'one-man' rule sans any worthwhile management cadre.

The current PIA chief Tariq Kirmani, who was handpicked by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz for the challenging task which lay ahead of him. Now is his ninth month and Kirmani has to his credit a remarkable management career in which he showed his mettle in his two previous assignments. First in a multi-national Caltex he showed his calibre to uplift the company with his innovative marketing approach and later heading the giant PSO (Pakistan State Oil) he took it to great heights as the market leader in every respect.

Although without any previous airline experience, he has lost little time in launching national airline towards a goal of progress, prosperity and modernisation, it has needed so badly for some time. He had inherited a legacy of huge recurring losses, a non-existent management cadre at all levels and an organisation without a well defined policy or goal. He quickly launched himself into rectifying all these deficiencies and has already shown that the path chosen by him had started showing the desired trends and results. His first and foremost task has been to give the airline a proper "mission statement", which spells out in detail what is required of each and every employee and has been duly circulated to each one of them. As he has said openly that he believed in zero tolerance as far as the violation of "mission statement" is concerned. Then he has moved with speed to correct the overall size and number of airline employee through some planned restructuring moves, without creating any unnecessary ripples in the organisation.

He is also creating the much needed new management cadre in the airline with his modern and innovative marketing approach he had earlier so successfully deployed in PSO.

He said he is not a person who dwells in the past and would like to concentrate on the future of PIA and where it has to go from here, in order, therefore, to set PIA in the right direction. It has become extremely important to go through the process of what is known in management language as internal and external scanning , to see where it is now.

While competition was growing PIA was slipping away from competition. "Where you slip away from competition," he cautioned, "you slip away from business, and ultimately it dies."

"Status quo is a sure recipe for death, he maintained, for there is nothing constant, you are either going up or you are gong down. And when you struggle to achieve greater heights you go up, when you do nothing, you go down. In other words, sitting in your office from 8:30 am to even as late as 10:30 pm means nothing, if you have done nothing and if you have not created any value for the corporation. You have to be proactive; you have to be creative to do business successfully."

Our business is flying planes, putting people in the plane and making sure that the airplanes are full and flying. We don't make planes, so we can forget about that our concern is merely to get passengers to fill these planes and to ensure that these planes are well maintained and flying safely.

The Chairman talked at length about the three Cs concept of Convenience, Comfort and Competitiveness - all provided with a smile. He said convenience stood for flying planes with the passenger convenience with respect to timing, ticketing, method of access and availability etc, in mind. This created loyalty of passengers. Comfort stood for handling, seats, WE, ambience of the interior, good food, great experience. Competitiveness is concerned with improving yield, seat factor, capacity, fleet age and ticket pricing. PIA has an average fleet age of 20 years, compared to Singapore Airlines, which has an average fleet age of 7 years. He said he is planning to bring PIA's fleet age to 10 years in the next 5 years. And if we follow this strategy of airlines acquisition (leased or buying) we can bring it down to 6-7 years also.

All these triple CCC's, he remarked, have to be conducted with a capital "5" i.e. Smile, for we are in the" Service Business." I have tremendous hope and confidence that we are capable of getting there," he remarked.

He encouraged the participants to take bold and honest decisions in the best interest of PIA and he assured them that they will not be penalised for it. PIA has great potential and, he said, he was confident that together we could make all this happen.

Another significant move by the new PIA Chairman has been his firming up plans for fleet expansion including replacement programme for the aging Fokkers. All this had been pending for quite some time and the new management has moved ahead with speed to overcome this problem.

Some of the major achievements by the new PIA management have been a major upsurge in PIA operations and its working. After lying dormant for many years or cutting on its various regional and intercontinental routes, it is suddenly expanding its vistas and undergoing the much needed expansion in all directions, even in much crowded domestic market, PIA has assumed the proper role of a market leader. The private airlines which were nibbling at PIA with fare cuts have been rightly taught a lesson by returning the compliment. As a result PIA has not only improved its load factor but also profitability.

Summing up the future prospects Tariq Kirmani is on record having said PIA like all other airlines has been affected by the surge in jet fuel price. The fuel cost accounts for nearly 40 per cent of PIA's total operating cost, the need to ensure effective utilisation of resources and cost cutting initiatives has now become even more crucial. PIA is pursuing an aggressive marketing policy with emphasis on increasing business and revenue to offset expenditure incurred on rising international oil prices. With this philosophy in mind and his all-out efforts to uplift customer services and image of PIA, the new PIA Chairman is on course for PIA finally entering a new era of excellence and carving a niche for itself like it did many years ago.