CEO saga: Keeping national carrier out of petty politics
The purpose of this short article is to examine a few governance issues, revolving around the Emirates decision to decline seats to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his entourage resulting in the work permit of Peter Hill being cancelled by the Sri Lankan government.
The issue briefly was that SriLankan CEO Peter Hill had allegedly declined to grant seats to accommodate President Rajapaksa (returning after a private visit to London) with the government angrily wanting to withdraw the CEO’s work permit and probably to remove him. The incident happened during the peak tourist season where the SriLankan had to decide whether to off load first and business class passengers to accommodate the President and his entourage.
|SriLankan Chief Executive Officer Peter Hill whose resident visa and work permit were cancelled
In a democracy, the utmost principle is the rule of law. There cannot be any one above the law, be it the president or anyone else. No sensible person will even make a request to unseat or off load first class passengers to accommodate another person. If such a request was made, the CEO of any competitive airline would have to consider the interest of the carrier and not that of the VVIPs who decide to take the flight after bookings have been finalised.
It seems clear that Peter Hill as the CEO of SriLankan and a professional had considered the best interest of the carrier when declining the seats. In a civilized world, he would have been commended for his decision. Airline industry is not a family concern, because it deals with passengers and international travel. In short, the CEO had upheld the rule of law in this instance.
It was very unfortunate that our political leadership and the advisors had failed to understand the positive side of the CEO’s decision. Instead, some vicious individuals must have then decided to withdraw his work permit and then allegedly hatch a coup to remove the CEO from office. The immaturity of the political appointees is well reflected in the attempt to justify this reckless decision.
It is not unusual in Sri Lanka today for high public officials to justify any erroneous decision, without being challenged because people are treated as fools. That itself raises another governance issue as to how those officials are appointed to high positions in public institutions in Sri Lanka. The political appointees have nothing else to do but justify any decision to please the appointing authorities.
The withdrawal of the work permit of the CEO is undoubtedly mala fide and not in the best interest of the country. It is now clear from the pronouncements made by the BOI Chief that the government is seeking the ouster of the SriLankan CEO purportedly “in the public interest”. This is an absolute abuse of the concept of public interest amounting to corruption, the personal interest of a president or a BOI chief cannot be public interest in a democracy.
If the President expected to attend his son’s graduation, obviously there would have been sufficient time to arrange flights in advance; the national carrier should not suffer. The government instead should have investigated as to how those responsible failed to book the flights in advance. Mere statements from political appointees would not suffice.
Finally, the privatization of SriLankan was in fact a matter of concern for a very long time but we must not confuse the two issues.
Undoubtedly, SriLankan has its own internal problems with the flight attendants etc. SriLankan and the government had failed to sufficiently address the previous unfortunate issue of removing the Tamil crew on the advice of the presidential security staff when the President flew from London previously.
In this backdrop, the government is left with few options to maintain its reputation in the airline industry; firstly to leave the national carrier out of petty politics, at least now, and secondly to admire the courage displayed by Peter Hill.
The writer is Sri Lanka’s Transparency International Chief