It was not too long ago when ‘PIA – Great Rats to Fly With’ was trending on social media as a pack of rats decided to embark a PIA Airbus 310. Despite placing 50 mousetraps on the aircraft, PK792 failed to achieve a rodent-free status from pest-traffic controllers on flight and had to make an unscheduled landing at Islamabad airport with a dozen more ‘unwelcome’ passengers than they had bargained for. That isn’t the only time PIA has caught the media’s attention with its rather unusual shenanigans. There have been other weird creatures who’ve found a safe haven inside planes, grasshoppers for example. On a more serious note, technical faults such as failed landing gear and jammed aircraft doors, endless flight delays and cancellations, pilots with forged degrees and unnecessary employee inductions despite being cash-strapped also make for some of the few lows that PIA has faced over the course of time.
Receiving so much flak, it’s hardly surprising that the national carrier has been desperate for some positivity associated with its name; a change of style is what was prescribed as step one. The management at PIA, along with legendary couturier Bunto Kazmi, worked on a fashionable transformation that resulted in last week’s Style PIA showcase. 16 designers participated in a healthy competition to create a new look for PIA’s cabin crew and on ground staff. The four finalists – Sania Maskatiya, Yasmin Shaikh, Omar Farooq and Nomi Ansari – exuded a much needed contemporary image.The face of this transformation was all good but it made one wonder: was a designer makeover enough for PIA to build its desired brand identity?
As usual, the critics on Twitter were the very first to respond and they had mixed reactions. Columnist Omar Waraich wrote, “PIA’s management should know their problems, demand more than mere – and literal – cosmetic changes, or a trite resort to style over substance.” Another regular user Fatima Ali, however, appreciated PIA’s efforts towards change, writing that “PIA selects new look for cabin crew. This is a good first step.” Some even went to the extent of deeming the event as a waste of funds spent on needless purposes.
Actress-producer Zeba Bakhtiar, who was part of the panel of six judges assigned to select the new uniform, reiterated the importance of ground improvement first when asked if new designer uniforms would be enough for an image makeover.
“Of course not. The icing doesn’t matter, it is the cake that does. And this is just the icing; it is the actual cake that we need to sort out first,” she asserted while speaking to Instep. “Nevertheless it is great that this is happening. It should have happened years ago but I am glad that they have finally taken the initiative.”
Thankfully, PIA’s leading management echoed the same opinion and admitted to the flaws that lied within the organization. “PIA is looking at multifaceted prospects to improve but the challenges we face are also multifaceted and I don’t want to shy away from them,” said PIA Chairman Nasser Jaffer in his speech. “I understand that an image makeover will not do much till we offer an improved performance on ground and we are working towards this. For starters, we are planning to introduce 10 brand new A320 planes and 75 ATRs this year.”
“This is just one step but there is a lot more to be done. We must back up this new image with action and that is where our focus lies. Having said that, with a new face we want to change PIA to a modern, contemporary and dependable airline,” he added while speaking exclusively to Instep.
It is refreshing to see PIA dignitaries acknowledge their shortfalls in public and take this small but significant step towards a progressive future. However, this also leads one to the question of what is the extent of the impact that a style makeover can have on the airline’s first impression.
The style conundrum
There is no denying the fact that a style makeover for PIA’s staff is merely surface level image-building, relying on appearances instead of performance. A new uniform in no way implies that PIA will be back on ground as a power airline overnight. However, one must also recognize that an airline’s cabin crew is the front line of representation and contact for customers; it will help develop a standard identity in a potential passenger’s mind.
“A new and fresh crew uniform will certainly help PIA create a positive customer outlook and also infuse a polite and upbeat feeling in its crew, leading to a more constructive crew-customer relationship,” stated the Chairman. “In this respect, a new uniform plays a very important role in terms of crew motivation and (customer retention, subsequently).”
When it comes to a national carrier, this role then extends to portraying a national image. As Bunto Kazmi asserted while talking to Instep, “The time, effort and generosity put in this project by the designers was admirable as everyone had come together to promote the image of ‘Pakistan’.” (Here, the stress is on Pakistan and PIA being symbolic of it). Therefore, reinventing and rethinking corporate uniforms is a first step in the right direction, if not a complete one.
Designer uniforms are a norm worldwide. From Vivienne Westwood, who will soon unveil her designs for Virgin Atlantic to Gianfranco Ferre for Korean Air, airlines have long relied on popular fashion designers to help develop their image. Bringing 16 of Pakistan’s best designers on board to interpret a new uniform also ensures that PIA is working towards a progressive, modern image that it lost post the Zia-ul-Haq era.
“Our requirement in having the crew uniform revamped was certainly an effort towards creating a more secure and progressive attitude in our staff which would go hand in hand with the new, upgraded approach that the airline is trying to build,” Chairman Nasser assured. “At the same time, we also required the uniform to be practical and convenient and also a representation of our rich cultural diversity.”
The winning combination, however, may have not been so representative of Pakistan’s rich culture with ‘green’ surprisingly missing from the outfits but it does exude sophistication (albeit a little conservative) at a globally competitive level. Perhaps “a collaborative effort by all designers” would have given far better results as Zeba pointed out but it’s also high time that we as a nation start appreciating the positives. PIA may have been flying low for the longest time but it has also managed to reduce approximately 11 billion rupees in losses over the past year along with the induction of brand new planes and a foreign crew for domestic flights.
As Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, who too participated in the showcase on a pro bono basis suggested, “Every single drop counts to create a big ocean of image that we require. It’s time we start looking at the positives. People say we have only few planes but why not appreciate that we at least have few planes. Even with the drawbacks we fly to places like London and Barcelona so why not celebrate that.” We couldn’t agree more. It may take years before PIA restores its former glory (those days when it was Jacqueline Kennedy’s favourite airline) but one has to begin somewhere.
PS: Despite widespread criticism on the state of its airplanes, PIA offers a few of the smoothest flights amidst turbulence and has some of the most experienced pilots that bigger airlines send crew to train with. We back this by personal experience!
Photography by Kohi Marri