Sri Lanka Airforce helicoptors and transport aircraft, with the end of a 30 year-long armed revolt by the LTTE, are being commissioned for a more lucrative and productive venture: Commercial passenger and cargo transport.
Helitours, the commercial arm of the Airforce started in the late 1970s and then inactive during the duration of the war between 1983 and 2009, has been given an entirely new look, a friendlier-than-military face and has opened its first office, outside any airforce camp, at Kollupitiya junction. Restoring itself to the old glory as a commercial venture, the Sri Lanka Airforce is probably the only airforce unit in the world with a commercial outfit (Helitours) using currently six aircraft including three Bell helicoptors and a Mi-17 and two planes with 15 and 45-sea capacity.
“We are going to run this as a company and recently registered Helitours under the Companies Act. All the profits will go to the government but it will be run as a private company with professional management,” noted Group Captain Janaka Nanayakkara, media spokesman for the Airforce.
Since the end of the war in May 2009, Helitours has regular scheduled flights to Palaly, Trincomalee, Batticaloa or Ampara on its 45-seat and 15-seat planes but also handles charters to any destination in Sri Lanka. “We’ll fly anywhere at your request,” he said, adding that there has been a bit of capital investment in new uniforms for staff and hiring an office location. The Trincomalee schedule of a return flight on Friday and Monday provides a good opportunity for foreign and domestic tourists or expatriates seeking to enjoy a weekend stay in Trincomalee. “The price is not that high and travel time to the East is reduced to less than an hour’s travel,” he said.
The planes and helicoptors will run under the airforce logo but could change in time depending on the commercial success of the venture. “We’ll open more offices outside camps depending on the success,” he said, adding that staff at the airline were excited by the prospects of increasing demand.
Currently Helitours is the only airline service available to Jaffna after the opening of the A9 highway made it uneconomical for other carriers. “We have a minimum 15 passengers on all three flights per week to Jaffna,” said Thilangani Warakagoda, Manager of the airline office which has a staff of 25. Pilots at Helitours will be operating in tandem with their regular duties at the airforce.
Staff at the office
Nanayakkara said the airline handled 25 to 30 charters a month mostly for expatriates and company directors. A steward and refreshments are provided on long, distance and more-than-one stop charters, with the charges being per flying hour. “If the numbers increase we have enough aircraft (in the Airforce) to be mobilised for commercial use. That’s not a problem,” Nanayakkara said, adding that the ticket prices can come down if the demand rises.
The airline is also handling cargo and some years back carried generators to Nuwara Eliya under its belly, technically called an ‘underslung’ operation.
It has also been pressed into service as a medical ambulance internally and could be used by ships trying to ferry an injured crewman to a Colombo hospital.
Nanayakkara said in recent times the airline has been ferrying crew to a ship involved in the Mannar offshore oil exploration by the Cairns company. The crew replenishment is being a regular schedule for Helitours, he said adding that with a bigger ship xpected to be put into service, the crew replenishment flights will increase. The distance from shore to the Mannar rig is between 12 to 30 nautical miles (21.6 to 54 km).
Nanayakkara said the Airforce decided to fully utilise its aircraft, whenever possible and outside routine inhouse schedules, for Helitours because ‘any aircraft that doesn’t fly needs more maintenance (a costly exercise) on the ground than off the ground.’