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Corporate Governance

One of the better initiatives of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) is to encourage financial institutions to adhere to the “Code for Corporate Governance“ framed in 2002. While SBP is mostly concerned with monitoring financial institutions, the code is applicable for all corporate entities. The most tangible step has been the establishment of the “Pakistan Institute of Corporate Governance” (PICG). Appointing Zahid Zaheer, a respected senior corporate executive of proven great ability and experience as its Head showed positive intent and seriousness of purpose. Hopefully PICG will train independent directors structured corporate responsibility, and they in turn will translate this into ensuring viz (1) a fair return for the investors and (2) a merit-oriented professional environment for all the employees.

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East India Company Executives

The most coveted slots in the job market for a long time were those of foreign companies working in Pakistan, these were in banks, oil companies, pharmaceutical industry, etc. The companies paid well and had a wide range of both visible and hidden perquisites (perks), their training whether in management or botanical folds was in keeping with international standards, they gave an opportunity for travel and posting abroad and lastly, in a society very sensitive to status, they put the individual into a class apart, indeed giving him a choice of elite clubs in the pay package as a status symbol. There were not so many jobs on offer 40-50 years ago, the competition for every slot was very fierce, the job opening depending not only on merit but the clout the family had. In contrast our young men and women now have greater choice, both at home and abroad. Corporate Pakistan really came into being with the advent of PIA as an international airline par excellence under Air Marshal Nur Khan. Local companies in business and industry gradually began to come good with respect to job satisfaction when compared with foreign entities. Taking the early 60s as the base-line, the most sought after jobs in order of priority were with foreign companies, the civil service, PIA, the Armed Forces and then in the medical and engineering professions. The litmus test for job priority preference is that a large number of doctors and engineers opt to become civil servants, but many young civil servants have opted over the years to become executives in foreign financial institutions or other companies.

Casting aspersion on their merit in a sweeping manner would be unfair, but a fair percentage of the young people who managed to get the few slots available in foreign commercial entities in the early days of Pakistan and uptil the mid-60s were mostly sons of serving civil servants or influential landlords, etc. In these days slots for siblings of military officers were rarely available. Since the foreign companies needed to shore up their influence by having such people on their payrolls who had ready access to people with influence, and those who had influence needed their siblings in very lucrative jobs, this was a mutually acceptable proposition, it does not need much imagination to conclude that both sides got a good bargain. Unfortunately this mutual satisfaction came at a high price, influence was used to gain maximum advantage for the foreign entities at the cost of the country. By this time PIA became the jewel in the crown, it took over 20 years of nepotism to turn a merit-oriented airline into a disaster waiting to happen. By the 70s jobs multiplied, more and more deserving young men (and an occasional woman) found employment with foreign and local corporate entities. Merit over nepotism became recognized as necessary for selection, the market competition became very fierce, these companies needed good executives to work efficiently and competently, both in the domestic and international field. The requirement of hiring only those with potential for influence pre-employment faded but those who had got jobs on merit having also influence post-employment became an additional qualification. A rash of young men and women became very much visible on the social circuit. Many had studied in colleges and universities abroad and are now paid handsomely to work for their foreign masters locally in Pakistan. By the 80s a new generation of Pakistanis, more self-confident, assertive and belonging to a wide spectrum of society started to be selective about their jobs, whether with local and foreign companies. With local companies run much more professionally in keeping with international standards, provided the money is right, there is now an inflow from foreign companies to Pakistani entities.

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The Perils of PIA

Given the once-vaunted reputation of PIA, very few analysts are now either objective or positive about the airline’s performance. An airline is supposed to take passengers and cargo from one location to another, in safety, comfort and on time. As a corporate entity it is also supposed to earn profits and for the most part, PIA performs reasonably well on both counts. Then why is it that PIA gets a lot of flak from travelling passengers, mostly Pakistani nationals since it is increasingly clear that foreigners prefer alternatives and unless it is a package, say for the Maldives or for connections to Bangkok or Dhaka, they take PIA as an airline of least preference, even when journeying to Pakistan?

As an illustration of the point, one would like to relate events of Thursday April 30, 1998 when I took PK-314 from Karachi to Lahore at 06:00 am on my way to Islamabad after a few hours stay at Lahore. When I reached Lahore Airport at 2:30 pm to embark upon PK-303 at 3:30 pm I was told that the flight had been delayed till 5:55 pm because the aircraft had left Lahore late for Bahawalpur at 12:00 noon. Since I had time at my hands I decided this was as good an opportunity to test the system, so I requested the concerned traffic staff to put me on any earlier flight. There was no other flight in-between except Aero-Asia and their flight at 5 pm had been cancelled. However PIA had PK-728, an international flight, landing at Lahore and continuing onto Islamabad at 4:50 pm. It was quite possible to accommodate the 30 passengers on that flight. It could be done I was told, if the District Manager could speak to the Station Manager, who in turn would get permission from the Customs and Immigration. So with some difficulty I got through to Mr Arif Khan, the District Manager, who at least spoke to me, though his tone suggested that anything lower than the PM and the Punjab CM was far below his status or attention level. In any case he did speak to the Station Manager, Mr Azeem Zafar, who in turn cheerfully told me that it was entirely his fault and that I should blame him since he could have acted earlier and didn’t. Now the Customs and Immigration authorities were not available as it was past their office hours. For good measure I rang up the Director Marketing PIA, Mr Haider Jalal, in Karachi but couldn’t get through to him, first because he was on a long overseas call and then had to sit in on a Promotion Board. When I explained to his staff the urgency of the matter, they conveniently passed the buck. I was put through to the Passenger Sales Manager Mr. Abid Jaffery, who told me, again quite cheerfully that I was wasting his and my time, that Mr Arif Khan in Lahore was the man to contact. During all this time, the attitude of the PIA ground staff at Lahore was excellent, they were courteous and hospitable to all the passengers. I was personally in no real hurry but there were passengers who were thus discomfited at the delay and the inability of PIA to improvise even when a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) should have been in place. This was a singular case of lack of decision-making. Both the District Manager and the Station Manager should have been concerned about the delay but it was quite obvious they were not pushed. There must be a system within PIA that caters for such delays but quite obviously it was not functioning and the decision-makers on the spot were not pushed. Could it have happened to another airline? Maybe, but in the circumstances, the lack of decision-making is endemic to PIA and as it goes higher up the management ranks, it gets worse. For the record, it is still far better than what it was a couple of years ago where all major decisions emanated from the former PM’s very decisive spouse and/or his hand-picked minions in PIA, mostly for personal profit or rank nepotism.

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The PIA Story – Excellence Resilient over Nepotism

(This is the SECOND and CONCLUDING article of the national airline)

That PIA has survived the likes of Asif Zardari is a story of excellence being resilient enough to withstand the vagaries of nepotism and corruption. Throughout PIA’s history many opportunists and self-seekers have undermined its efficiency and credibility but no one ever mounted such a sustained assault on the structure of the organization as Zardari did, he ruined the rest of the country in the same very unique manner.

PIA’s strong points are its pilots and engineering staff, despite the skepticism of many one may also make the same comment about the core of a very dedicated management cadre, at least for the most part. Which other commercial airline in the world flies such an old fleet of Boeing 747’s and Fokker-27s in such a cost effective and safe manner? Both aircraft have more than outlived their commercial utility by at least a decade if not more. This displays a tremendous inherent self-confidence within PIA’s staff about their own and each other’s abilities, that potential is a corporate asset of tremendous value. Barring a few black sheep among the cockpit crew as well as ground and flight engineers, the rating mark as to the performance of the vast majority is well above average. Some of the cockpit crew have unfortunately been politicized and since they frequently fly those who matter, a few also consider themselves “armchair experts” on geo-political and economic affairs, they should concentrate on improving their own professionalism and stay away from politics or enter politics full-time as a profession. Hopefully we will keep politicians and intellectuals from trying to learn how to fly an aircraft.

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Ordinary People, Real Commitment

The PIA flight from Jacobabad to Karachi is usually not an event of any note. On Feb 12, 1996, PK 546, on way from Nawabshah, aborted landing at Jacobabad at 4:30 pm because of aircraft tire pressure falling “below the permissible limits”. PK 546 went back all the way to Karachi, 40 passengers on board, 40 aspirants for PK 547 waiting on the ground at Jacobabad. Noor Lashari, Manzoor Ahmad and Mahesh Kumar are ordinary people but they are respectively PIA’s District Sales Manager (DSM), CAA’s Airport Manager and PIA’s Station Manager (SM) at Jacobabad. As 4:50 p.m. passed (the PK 547’s scheduled departure), at least a dozen or so of who were not resident of Jacobabad or the surrounding area, had reason to worry, John Henry Jacob’s town is not so comfortable a place for “accidental tourists” to spend the night, at least without proper notice.

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The Great Silent Majority

Charismatic leaders of the third world may come to power on a wave of public adulation but retain their chairs only through the support of the Great Silent Majority among the masses. This support may initially be based on the residuals of euphoria of an election campaign, can be sustained only through achievements taken note of by the masses, particularly pertaining to their economic well-being, not unrelated to a sound law and order situation. When the public confidence in hollow rhetoric starts to erode, the balloon of popularity starts to deflate fairly rapidly, the end reaction can be quite damning.

Ms Benazir Bhutto’s ascent to power was pre-ordained for several reasons, some positive and some negative. The positive reasons were her undeniable charisma, a lasting admiration for her late father, her stated manifesto and above all the massive western media support based on admiration for her brave struggle, translating into vital support within the vocal liberal wing of the political structures of the western nations, particularly in the Democratic Party in the US. Though PPP got a supposedly split mandate, she enjoyed the grudging support of even those who probably did not vote for her party. The negative support for her was because of antipathy towards late Gen Zia and his dictatorial rule, May 29 Junejo Government massacre being the last straw for even his moderate supporters. This was further accentuated by the penchant of the masses for genuine unadulterated democratic freedom and the natural inclination for change after a long hiatus, any change. After May 29, 1988 change just became a matter of time, Aug 17 was simply a tragic milestone along nature’s way to a free and fair election, as much as any election in a third world country can be called as such. To their undying credit, the military hierarchy kept the constitutional faith, strengthening the hands of the President in his clear choice of the leader of the majority party in the National Assembly, Ms Benazir of PPP, to form the Federal Government. For many reasons, again positive and negative, Ms Benazir needed to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, despite her detractors there is no ambiguity or controversy about her ascent to power, this was as it should have been, added to that she seemingly had overwhelmed the regionalists in Sindh.

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Air Wars Over Open Skies The Battle of Pakistan

In keeping with its policy for liberalising of the economy, the Nawaz Sharif regime set about deregulating the aviation industry. As a part of that process, permissions were granted to a number of airlines for operating on domestic sectors. Going further, the then government decided that reciprocal sovereign agreements were not to be enforced for operating to and from Pakistani international airports, the initial opening being confined to Karachi. While “letting a hundred flowers bloom” was a positive move with respect to the domestic skies, a proliferation of non-sovereign airlines started a cutthroat price war on the Dubai-Karachi-Dubai international sector. If the “Open Skies” policy had been restricted to sovereign airlines, as is slated to be done with effect from Jan 1, 1994, the dubious proliferation of fly-by-night operators who took advantage of the situation to the detriment of both the national interest and the national airline would have been avoided. While the government should have opted for a more phase-wise approach and annunciated a more clear-cut policy, the CAA rather than the government are to blame for the mess because there is enough evidence on record to suggest that the regulating authority misled the government, even circumventing the spirit of the liberalisation, to suit certain vested interest. In effect, this amounted to daylight robbery and one must commend PIA for not succumbing to unfair market pressure on its most lucrative route. As it is, they have taken a sustained hit because of the open-ended approach. Besides being potentially unfair, the CAA stance was extremely discriminating against the national interest and somebody should be taken to task for it. The limited aviation “rollback” on “Open Skies” on external sectors is a more suitable and considered policy, one that should have been the responsibility of the CAA to implement in the first place.

As a frequent critic of PIA, it is a pleasure to note the superb manner that PIA has conducted itself in the past few months to meet the challenge. It is beginning to look like the Airline of two decades ago in the first Nur Khan-tenure. Both on the international and domestic routes there has been a marked change for the better with respect to the visible operations, particularly ground handling and in-flight service. To that extent, more than anything else competition seems to have aroused the dormant loyalty within PIA personnel and motivated them to perform in the able manner that they are capable of. There is no substitute for courtesy and caring. Some of us who travel constantly on domestic routes, particularly on the Karachi-Islamabad-Karachi sector and have been spoiled by the attention we get on the ground in Islamabad, were still unprepared for the depth of company spirit within the PIA staff, particularly those who manage the First Class Lounge (Mrs. Najam, etc). That such protective emotion could have been aroused is a credit to PIA, to all its management, past and present. While doing many things wrong, in balance (and in all fairness) it seems that PIA has been ahead in also doing things right. With their livelihood in danger at the advent of many airlines, PIA personnel have banded together and raised their performance. If one may say so, the stark difference is clearly visible.

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Open Skies

While an “Open Skies” policy is a natural extension of the government’s liberalisation programme, deregulation of the aviation industry has been one of the most significant of the Nawaz Government’s initiatives. This two-pronged foray creates a new dynamics (“let a hundred flowers bloom”) in the body economic of Pakistan, serving to propel a wider percentage of our masses pell mell into the twentieth century’s technological marvels and its benefits thereof, albeit in its very last decade. Just before Eid, a private airline announced inaugural operations on one of the most travelled aerial sectors in Pakistan, Karachi-Islamabad-Karachi. Hajvairy Airlines thus become the first to break PIA’s monopoly of the domestic aerial routes, one hopes that more private airlines will follow to open up shuttle services on the pattern available in most western countries between the key major cities. Expectations that the advent of more aviation companies would mean the death knell for PIA are patently incorrect, this should act as a tremendous boost for the national airline. Bereft of a marker for evaluation, PIA has suffered in the lack of comparison thereof. PIA’s competitive spirit would be aroused to cater for survival in the new dynamics.

The government must ensure that an “Open Skies” policy should have reciprocity as a fundamental principle. Take the example of Kenya, which sells us tea worth more than US150 million annually and purchases virtually nothing in return. Despite the fact that Kenya Airlines comes to Karachi, they have not given PIA the requested landing rights (only) on the way to Johannesburg. This is taking undue advantage of the “Open Skies” policy to the detriment of PIA (and the nation). The government must impose mandatory sanctions against those who do not reciprocate our liberal generosity. The other factor is that socio-economic factors rather than commercial factors govern present operation on many of PIA’s domestic routes, that handicap must be adjusted against the balance when assessing PIA’s performance vis-a-vis private airlines who will only be governed by commercial parameters.

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Jobs and the Nation

Two mighty Superpowers confronted each other in a four decades old cold war till a scant year or so ago with enough bang in their arsenals to blow the world up many hundreds of times over. Though the former Soviet Union’s weaponry is still intact for the most part in 12 or so different hands, the only effective Head Honcho left is the USA. As the clear winner of the cold war, George Bush would be expected to be riding high in the esteem of his own electorate. In addition to the demise of the Soviet Union, President Bush had orchestrated the world campaign, barely a year or so ago, to oust Iraq from Kuwait. His spectacular successes in foreign policy initiatives have been dwarfed by the spectre of continuing recession, jobs are more important to the US public than the fate of Gorbachev, Yeltsin or Saddam Hussain. The same factor of economics that was primarily responsible for consigning the Soviet Union to oblivion is now threatening to erode his candidacy for a Second Term. If the populace seems unduly ungrateful, it only seems to confirm man’s over-riding and pragmatic concern for one’s own self-interest.

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