Unions existing within PIA, led by the pilots, forced cancellation of 400 flights in 2011
Unions that exist within the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), led by the pilots, forced cancellation of 400 flights in 2011 before Aijaz Haroon, the then managing director, was unceremoniously removed by a wary government. In the recent confrontation, 88 flights have been cancelled so far and both sides – the pilots and the management – are holding their ground.
Similarities in the two episodes, separated by more than four years, cannot be ignored. Haroon, a senior PIA pilot himself, was hand-picked by then-president Asif Ali Zardari in May 2008 to lead the airline soon after Pakistan Peoples Party came into power.
After a long time, there was a powerful MD who was not only a close aide of the president but also firm in taking difficult decisions. Within a year, Haroon was in a standoff with union leaders who wanted more say in management affairs. And the first issue revolved around the Flight Services Department, which decided schedules of airhostesses and stewards.
The department, which was located in a building that housed the office of the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agent), was merged into the Flight Operations section and moved to another part of PIA’s head office. That was done to curb the culture of bribes and political interference for posting cabin crew on international flights. It worked.
But Flight Operations was headed by a pilot selected by the management unions that wanted someone of their own liking. This turned out to be the first thorn in Haroon’s relations with the unions especially the Pakistan Airline Pilots’ Association (Palpa). As tension continued, it was ultimately the codeshare agreement with Turkish Airlines that was used to mount a war on Haroon.
Fast forward to 2015 and the issue is pretty much the same albeit a few differences. Palpa is unhappy with current Director Flight Operations Captain Salman Azhar who has retired and hence, not considered one of its own. The association is poking into areas like the efficacy of the new aviation policy and excise duty on tickets, where it is not the only stakeholder. As a matter of fact, out of the 10 key demands it has made, only four are related to pilots.
Haroon, who for years could not captain a flight after his fallout with Palpa, is now retired and says the government and the opposition political parties must not repeat past mistakes.
“Except for the CBA, working agreements with all unions including Palpa should be rescinded and replaced with an Administrative Order,” he told The Express Tribune. “The admin order should cover everything – salaries, allowances and other conditions instead of each association having its own separate agreement.” Such a move will strip the associations of their bargaining power, which is used to arm-twist the management, he said.
But state-run PIA is also the launching pad for political attacks, he warns. “The admin order can be introduced through the presidential ordinance till the assembly approves it. In the meanwhile, government can try wooing the opposition. This is a make-or-break point for PIA.” For Palpa, everything boils down to their working agreement, which guides their employment terms and conditions. The 77-page proposal it has submitted to the management will cost PIA an additional Rs3.3 billion if implemented. “Around 431 captains and co-pilots want over Rs3 billion in pay-raise and allowance,” said an official involved in the negotiation.
“Compared to this, the CBA, which represents 7,556 lower grade employees, has sought raises that will cost Rs1.03 billion. And they are not even protesting.”
Using what is known as the go-by-the-book programme, a reference to flying rules that can be used to call-in sick just hours before a flight, pilots are pushing for revision in pay scale and other perks. The confrontation, one of the many that cash-strapped airline’s management has faced with pilots in recent years, has occurred when PIA is running tight schedule to bring back Haj pilgrims.
“Affected passengers are being accommodated on other airlines and we are also paying for hotel stay,” said Aamir Memon, PIA’s spokesman.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2015.
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