Tuesday, July 11, 2006

PIA Crash: A Much Avoidable Tragedy

Yesterday yet another tragedy struck Pakistan when a PIA plane crashed minutes after taking off from Multan airport killing forty-five people.

Many believe this disaster could have been avoided if PIA had stopped using its ancient fleet of Fokker F-27 Friendships.


The first prototype of the Fokker F27 Friendship made its maiden flight on 24 November 1955. Production soon got underway and the first commercially-made plane entered service with Aer Lingus in November 1958. Less than two years later, in 1960 PIA obtained its first of the five F-27s it had ordered for its fleet.

After producing a record number of F-27 (786 in total) Fokker halted production of this aircraft in 1986. Unable to repeat the success of the F-27, 1996 Fokker NV, the Dutch aviation company went bankrupt.

The halt in production of the F-27 followed by bankruptcy of Fokker ten years greatly impacted on the availability of spare parts of this now obsolete aircraft.


Officials have already discounted the possibility of sabotage. All current speculation revolves around the possibility of a technical failure.

The control tower at Multan airport lost contact with the plane approximately two minutes after takeoff. Local witnesses reported the plane plummeting down, with a fire visible on its left side.

While local air crash investigators have recovered the flight data and cockpit voice recorders of the plane, Civil Aviation Authority has indicated that help of foreign experts could be sought to examine the recorders might be sought and it would take at least a month to complete the investigation into the air crash.

Your Blogger has over the years had the unfortunate experience of flying on F-27 on more than several occasions. There was no other option. In Pakistan if one wishes to travel to smaller cities such as Bahawalpur, Gwadar, Rahimyar Khan, Mohenjodaro, etc or catch a last minute flight from Islamabad to Lahore or to Sukkur, at times one had little choice but take the Fokker-27.

A friend who once worked as a senior engineer in PIA once rather sardonically warned me by saying: ‘The Fokkers are well past their crash-by dates”. Not only were spare parts unavailable but he wasn’t impressed by the engineering skills of the newer staff, which he believed were only worsened by the management's attitude to fly planes at all costs; according to him, rushed jobs were rapidly becoming the worrying norm.


So old is PIA’s Fokker fleet?

Here are the facts:

PIA F27 – Reg: AP-BDR - Manufactured in 1959 - bought in 1979 from Brazil
PIA F27 – Reg: AP-BAO - Manufactured in 1963 - bought in 1979 from France
PIA F27 – Reg: AP-BAL - Manufactured in 1964 - bought in 1979 from France
PIA F27 – Reg: AP-BDQ - Manufactured in 1964 - bought in 1989 from Brazil
PIA F27 – Reg: AP-BCZ - Manufactured in 1966 – bought in 1987 from Australia
PIA F27 – Reg: AP-BDB - Manufactured in 1966 – bought in 1988 from Australia
PIA F27 – Reg: AP-BHF - Manufactured in 1982 - bought in 2005 from Sri Lanka

According to news reports the crashed plane had been manufactured in 1964, which would mean that it was either AP-BAL or AP-BDQ.

Interviewed on GEO TV the president of the Pakistan Pilot Captain Khalid Hamza made it clear that he blamed PIA management for taking an inordinately long time to replace these obsolete planes. Hamza’s statement was even carried in
New York Times which quoted him saying :

“We had been complaining for long with the management of Pakistan International Airlines that these planes have outlived their age”
Furthering the debate this morning’s newspapers added further fuel to the fire.

The Nation reported the following:

Details obtained by The Nation revealed that on May 16, 2005, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Major (r) Tanveer Hussain had raised alarm in the National Assembly over the critical condition of Fokkers and asked the government to ground the entire fleet immediately.

Mr Hussain had also disclosed on the floor of the House that most of the Fokkers have completed more than 200,000 hours flights against their recommended life of 90,000 hours flights.

It is on the record of the National Assembly that instead of taking action on the bewailing of his Parliamentary Secretary, the then Minister of State for Defence Zahid Hamid, now Privatisation and Investment Minister, ardently defended that out of a fleet of 14, eight Fokkers were still fit for flight.

He, however, did not support the idea of his Parliamentary Secretary regarding the ground of the entire fleet of Fokkers.

“Had the government taken the hue and cry of Parliamentary Secretary on Defence, who knew the bitter facts about the health of Fokkers, serious in May last year, the bloody crash of Fokker in Multan on Monday could have been averted,” said an official of National Assembly.

However the The News placed the blame squarely on the Musharraf regime saying that while PIA had realized in 2004 the urgent need to replace the Fokkers, the request for funds for purchase substitute aircrafts went unanswered by the government.
The Pakistan International Airlines had moved a summary way back in 2004, requesting the government to grant funds for the replacement of the Fokkers but little or no attention was paid towards this demand. After a poor response from the government, the PIA authorities persisted with the planes, spending millions of rupees on their repair and maintenance, the sources said.

“The average age of a plane with the Singapore Airlines is five to seven years, while our Fokkers had completed their life span some 20 years back,” the sources said, adding that almost entire PIA fleet had completed its flying hours and needed immediate replacement.

The PIA officials had also tried to pursue the private airlines either to purchase or take on lease these Fokkers so that it could replace them but to no avail. “The private airlines had flatly refused to include these over-aged Fokkers in their fleets,” the sources said.

They said that the PIA had been running into losses for spending huge amount on repair and maintenance of the Fokkers but even then the authorities did not ground them. The sources added the aviation experts had also recommended the grounding of the PIA Fokkers.

And Dawn went on to expose the shortcoming in PIA’s engineering proficiency:

Aviation experts say PIA’s Fokker fleet had already flown far too many hours than what was supposed to be safe.

Sources in the national airline blame a shortage of technical staff for the fleet’s poor maintenance.

“At least 30 senior engineers have left PIA since January this year for better jobs,” they said.An aviation engineer told Dawn that a number of senior aircraft technicians had recently left PIA for a Gulf-based airline.

“The PIA engineering department’s current chief is a retired air force official who does not have any experience of commercial airliners,” he said.
However your Blogger believes the majority of the blame lies with PIA’s senior management. Their first duty is to ensure passenger safety and in my books they were clearly negligent for not grounding these obsolete aircraft ages ago – whether the replacements were there or not.

After PIA, the blame lies clearly with the government. It should not have ignored PIA’s request for funding. As the
Nation editorial thundered:

The tragedy sent a shock wave across the nation and set the people wondering why the ageing fleet of Fokkers had still been in operation, especially when for quite some time there has been talk of replacing it with modern, safer and more comfortable aircraft. Yesterday’s was the sixth crash of the F-27 aircraft since it was inducted into service in the country. The February 2003 accident near Kohat took the lives of Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir, Chief of the Air Staff, and 17 other PAF officers.

That all except the Kohat crash, which is supposed to have taken place on account of bad weather, occurred because of engine failure, should have warned the PIA engineering staff about the aircraft’s inherent weakness. A strong feeling developed among experts that Fokker planes had become obsolete and were not entirely safe for travel. This perception gained strength, particularly after the death of Air Chief Marshal Mir and it was proposed to replace them immediately. Somehow, the plan was shelved and it was decided to ground them by the end of 2006, which proves that official circles acknowledged the risk of travel abroad them; otherwise, there was no point in retiring them. However, last year, when some MNAs contended in the Parliament that the planes had flown far more than the recommended flight hours, the Defence Ministry officials maintained that they were fit for flying. It is unfortunate that the fleet has been kept in service at the risk of passengers’ lives for over three years after it was decided to replace them ‘immediately’. It is a great pity that the country has been buying expensive planes for VIP use, while the safety of ordinary passengers should have received the first priority and adequate finances should have been spared for this purpose.


Anonymous said...

I agree the PIA management is to blame.

However you failed to mention that 10 ATR72 would cost around the same as 1 F-16!

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