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Pakistan Again Looks To Privatize National Airline

Pakistan hopes to restart the privatization sale of its national airline in the coming months.
Pakistan hopes to restart the privatization sale of its national airline in the coming months.

A top Pakistani official says the country will attempt to privatize its national airline before parliamentary elections are held later this year.

Privatization Minister Daniyal Aziz told the Reuters news agency in an interview published on January 14 that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party wants to restart sales of loss-making, state-run businesses as soon as possible.

Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) has been losing money in the face of well-capitalized regional Gulf rivals such as Etihad and Emirates.

PIA was one of 68 state-owned entities set for privatization in 2013 as part of a deal in which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would provide some $6.7 billion to help Islamabad avoid a default.

The privatization of PIA stalled in 2016 after staff protests, and the government then moved to block the sale.

But Aziz said his Privatization Commission has drawn up new plans for the sale of PIA and that the proposals would be taken to the cabinet committee on privatization.

"Next step would be going to the cabinet committee...and that's imminent, maybe even next week," Aziz said.

He added that the new plan would see the core airline business being separated from other holdings, such as catering, hotels, and maintenance.

The core airline would then be sold, he said, although he did not provide an estimated value for the unit.

Emirates and Etihad showed interest in acquiring PIA before the government blocked the sell-off and are still looking into a deal, The Express Tribune newspaper reported, citing an unnamed official.

“The Privatization Commission found potential strategic buyers for two top loss-making, state-owned entities -- PIA and Pakistan Steel Mills,” the official told the newspaper.

“Emirates and Etihad Airways were showing great interest in PIA,” he said.

Aziz said there had been “huge interest” in Pakistan Steel Mills, now shut down but once a major industrial operation.

He added that because of time restraints ahead of the elections, the Privatization Commission will attempt to arrange deals for one state company per sector.

“But the real challenge is to bring to fruition the two big animals: one is PIA and the other one is Steel Mills," Aziz said.

Many analysts say it remains to be seen whether the government will want to take any measures that would be opposed by the powerful labor unions in the run-up the national elections, likely to take place this summer on a date to be determined.

With reporting by Reuters and The Express Tribune