ISLAMABAD: A day after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) declared that all licences issued by it to the pilots “are genuine”, the opposition on Thursday took Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan to task — first in the National Assembly and then in a Senate standing committee — over his allegation that 40 per cent of Pakistani pilots possessed “fake licences” and called for his resignation.

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) MNA Dr Nafisa Shah while speaking in the National Assembly on a point of order alleged that the minister through his false statement had caused a daily loss of Rs500 million to the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and removal of about 200 pilots from various airlines and damaged the “national prestige” at the international level.

“Various aviation agencies of the world have already sent letters to us. Tomorrow, our air space can be handed over to some other country. This is treason,” Dr Shah said while asking the minister to resign after the letter written by CAA Director General Hassan Nasir Jamy to a high-ranking aviation official of Oman, clarifying that all pilot licences issued by the CAA were “genuine and validly issued” and “none of the licences are fake”.

“If the minister is speaking the truth then the CAA DG should resign. But if the DG’s letter is stating the correct position, then the minister will have to go,” Dr. Shah said at a time when the minister was not present in the house.

Earlier, drawing the attention of the house to the letter of the CAA DG, Murtaza Javed Abbasi of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regretted that the statement made by the minister on the floor of the assembly had now been “rejected” by a “responsible officer” of the same ministry.

Reading out the letter of the CAA DG, Mr Abbasi called for formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate as to why the minister had made such an “irresponsible statement.”

Later, the issue came up under discussion at a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Aviation which had initially been called to discuss the “privatisation of the PIA properties and the Karachi plane crash” in the presence of both the aviation minister and the CAA DG.

The PPP’s Sherry Rehman raised the issue in the meeting of the committee headed by PML-N’s Mushahidullah Khan and said it was a “wrong move” by the aviation minister which had damaged Pakistan’s reputation.

However, the minister not only defended his remarks, he almost repeated his speech which he had delivered on the floor of the National Assembly while presenting the inquiry report of the May 22 plane crash. He, however, made one clarification and claimed that in his speech in the assembly he had declared the licences of the pilots “dubious” and not “fake.”

He said it might look as damaging for the country in short term but for the future it was important to show the world through actions that “we are improving our systems.”

The minister sad 10 countries had asked Islamabad to verify credentials of the Pakistani pilots employed in different airlines and out of 176 Pakistani pilots, they had verified the licences of 166 pilots and sent the reports to the authorities concerned.

Mr Khan said the process of verification of the degrees of the PIA employees had started on the directives of the Supreme Court and during the process, they had found that degrees of 658 employees, including pilots, were fake.

Meanwhile, the opposition members protested over the absence of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the PIA Air Marshal Arshad Mahmood Malik from the meeting.

“The PIA CEO should have been in the meeting as he had been summoned to attend the meeting,” Ms Rehman said.

While discussing the inquiry being conducted in licenses of pilots, a senior aviation official informed the committee that initially the licences and record of the examinations conducted in 2017 and 2018 were analysed and later all the examinations conducted after 2010 were analysed.

He said the inquiry found irregularities in cases of 262 pilots from a total of around 850 pilots. He said services of 28 pilots had been terminated after investigations. Besides, licenses of another 78 pilots have been suspended and an inquiry against them is in progress.

The committee members were of the view that even if 262 pilots had committed irregularities, the statement coming from the minister had damaged an already deteriorating airline and it would now take a lot of time to restore the world’s confidence in the country’s pilots.

The aviation secretary informed the committee that a biometric system and changing of codes had been done to ensure a transparent examination of pilots.

The committee members were also briefed on the privatisation of PIA properties inside and outside Pakistan, including Roosevelt Hotel in New York, along with the recommendations of the task force about each property.

The chairman of the committee expressed concern over the plan to privatize Roosevelt Hotel and said the government should not sell it till the end of the coronavirus pandemic. He also asked the government to carry out the renovation of the hotel before putting it for sale.

The committee members did not buy the argument that the privatization was being done due to loss of business resulting from Covid-19 since it was in 2019 when the task force was notified and observed that the way it was being done in haste showed that there was some anomaly in the deal.

The members opposed the move to privatize the New York hotel and observed that the hotel was in a prime location and should be kept in possession even if it was declared a heritage site.

Later, talking to reporters after attending the committee meeting, Sherry Rehman said after two hours of questioning, the statements of the CAA officials and the aviation minister were not matching.

“It is alarming that no one is taking responsibility for anything while PIA remains grounded.

“We do not even know who is actually investigating this issue,” she said.

“Instead of investigating the issue first, the minister first gave a statement and then said that “we will investigate.”

“We have demanded resignation of the CAA officials and the minister after this disappointing meeting. The nation will respect the minister for admitting his fault and resigning,” she concluded.

PML-N president and Opposition Leader in National Assembly Shahbaz Sharif, in a statement from Lahore, demanded that Prime Minister Imran Khan resign from the office for “defiling the nation flag carrier PIA causing it billions in losses and embarrassing Pakistan all over the world with his government’s misinformation statements that had turned out to be false”.

Mr. Sharif said after the CAA DG’s letter, action must be taken against Imran Khan and the aviation minister. He said, “incompetent Imran and his blunderous minister” were responsible for the billions worth of losses to the country’s national airline.