Pakistan plans to split ailing national flag carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) into two companies and sell control of the core business to a global airline over the next 18 months, but political opposition to the sell-off will be intense, the country’s privatization czar said.
Financial advisers are now in talks with several airlines about taking over cash-strapped PIA, which has some 17,000 employees but just 36 aircraft — and 10 of them are grounded due to a lack of spare parts.
Mohammad Zubair told Reuters in an interview during a visit to New Delhi that no decision had been taken on the buyer, but he mentioned Emirates airline, Etihad and Qatar Airways — the Gulf giants that dominate the regional sector — as possibilities.
Zubair said investors are returning to Pakistan after weeks of anti-government protests in Islamabad that have now fizzled out, and the OGDC deal representing 7.5% of the company’s share capital would be a test of their confidence. The OGDC sale is part of a sell-off drive to raise capital for an economy that has been crippled for years by power shortages, corruption and militant violence, and to staunch huge losses from dysfunctional companies. Zubair said the losses of power distribution companies alone are equivalent to one-sixth of the government’s fiscal revenues.
Next on the block will be the government’s 40% stake in Habib Bank Ltd, which will be sold in two stages between November and next March, for around $1.2bn. Also ahead is the sale, targeted at domestic investors, of the state’s 7.5% stake in Allied Bank Ltd, for around $150mn, Zubair said.
Over the years, critics say, governments have manipulated state Corps like PIA for political and financial gain, giving jobs to so many supporters that the size of the workforce has become unsustainable in the face of mounting losses.
To avoid mass layoffs that would run into political opposition the holding company would absorb all the employees, keep a share in the airline to earn dividend income and then sell off each of its interests individually over time.
Zubair said he could not proceed with the sale of PIA as quickly as other companies, partly because parliament may have to approve legislation allowing it to pass into private hands. “It’s more politically sensitive,” he said. “PIA is not going to be sold just like that.”