Guild says decision to suspend flights to Frankfurt and Paris will reduce value of national carrier By Namini Wijedasa SriLankan Airlines pilots and management are on a collision course over the decision to suspend flights to European destinations from October. The Airline Pilots’ Guild is speaking out openly against the move, saying it will reduce [...]


SriLankan pilots, management run into turbulence


Guild says decision to suspend flights to Frankfurt and Paris will reduce value of national carrier
By Namini Wijedasa
SriLankan Airlines pilots and management are on a collision course over the decision to suspend flights to European destinations from October. The Airline Pilots’ Guild is speaking out openly against the move, saying it will reduce the value of the national carrier and give competitors an edge. The pilots also speculate whether there is a deliberate attempt to cheapen the brand just months away from a proposed public-private-partnership.

The management counters by saying commercial decisions are not the prerogative of pilots and that it will do whatever is necessary to cut losses. SriLankan will stop flying to Frankfurt and Paris in two months. It suspended Rome in May. London will soon be the only European destination on the route map.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Pilots’ Guild’s executive committee members made scathing criticisms of recent management choices. They also admitted that relations with the SriLankan Airlines’ board were “not good.” The nine committee members did not wish to be individually identified.

The Guild recently wrote to the management questioning, among other things, the rationale for pulling out of Frankfurt and Paris. The pilots requested route performance figures to verify unprofitability claims, but were told this was sensitive information. They claimed such data had previously been available to staff.

The pilots insisted that they gained no personal benefit from continuing to fly to Europe. Rather, closing those routes would mean they get their allotted leave and not run short of flight deck crew. “We are often ten percent short of pilots,” a committee member said.

“But when the airline is about to be sold, it adds value to the company when we have European destinations,” he explained. The committee members said they feared that the airline would sell SriLankan’s lucrative European slots to other carriers for a high price.

When SriLankan suspends flights, the three Middle East carriers – Qatar, Emirates and Etihad- benefit a senior pilot warned. Meanwhile, Jet Airways, India’s second largest airline, has announced it hopes to fill the vacuum created by SriLankan suspending flights to Frankfurt and Paris.

The Guild was critical of the airline’s commercial operations’ chief, who had once worked for Jet Airways, saying he was only interested in closing stations. “All of us can do that,” scoffed a pilot. “The easiest way to run this airline is to park the aircraft, get the Government dole and pay the salaries! Other routes are also losing money. Do we, then, close those?”

There were concerns about transit traffic–passengers from other destinations going through Colombo to Europe, including Chinese and Indian travellers. “It affects our entire route network,” a senior pilot warned. “Where do we fly? What happens to our frequent flyer programme when European destinations are cut? When the buyer comes in, we have nothing to sell!”

The management’s strategy has not been explained to any sections of staff, the Guild also said. They advised the board to brainstorm with employees as they had countless years of experience. The pilots questioned whether the company had a business model that did not involve closing stations.

They asked whether the management had studied why there was no yield or profit. The Guild claimed the company had no scheme to defeat price-undercutting by Middle East carriers. They said the management had not tried reducing costs at overseas stations. They observed that qualified, experienced employees in the commercial division were not allowed a voice. The pilots said the new board members were not knowledgeable in the running of an airline. Despite saying the company was overstaffed, nobody has been retrenched.

“The problem right now is that they’re making decisions based on who-knows-what analysis,” a Guild member said. “That is putting our lives and our jobs at stake. This is why we are speaking out. Earlier, SriLankan had a politically-oriented policy. Now it’s meant to be commercially-oriented, but now it’s neither of the two.”

The Guild also encouraged the management to consider flying the new A350s which are being leased at tremendous cost -above market value. They said with more passengers, more cargo capacity and less fuel utilisation, the aircraft would generate more revenue that could go towards the rental.

Cheers: SriLankan raises its glass to junior pilots
SriLankan Airlines has praised two junior pilots for preventing their captain from flying an aircraft while in an intoxicated state.
But the company refused to say how long it had known that the senior crew member, Capt. Upendra Ranaweera, had issues related to alcohol consumption.

The Frankfurt-Colombo bound flight was delayed by 15 hours on August 19 after Capt. Ranaweera failed a breathalyzer test. Although a replacement pilot was available, restrictions on night-flying had prevented the aircraft from taking off earlier. The passengers were compensated.

“We are proud of the way we handled the incident,” SriLankan’s General Manager Marketing, Saminda Perera told a media conference. “We did what is right by sharing the correct information. Safety was never a compromise or in question. SriLankan has an impeccable safety record.”

The company’s safety management system (SMS) and corporate resource management (CRM) system worked. “We were the whistleblower and we prevented that gentleman from flying,” Mr Perera said.

Pilots face more checks and filters than anyone else. These include simulator tests and exams every six months, and an annual medical checkup. SMS was an additional layer to prevent anyone flying a plane when not fit to do so, said Management Pilot, Capt. Ranga Amadoru. It was a tool for any crew member to raise concerns about a workmate.
CRM is a system that facilitates smooth communication among flight deck crew and a more open corporate environment. It allows even junior officers to point out errors committed by senior crew.

“Both worked perfectly here,” Capt Amadoru said. The two first officers not only spoke up and advised their captain not to proceed while intoxicated (and to report sick), when he resisted they notified their management in Colombo. The crew member was prevented from reporting for duty. Significantly, the breathalyzer test was conducted before check-in.

“SriLankan has always been a safe operator,” Capt Amadoru stressed. “We may not always have been on time. There may have been all sorts of other issues. But one thing we will not let you down on is safety.” Even foreign pilots contracted to SriLankan Airlines say the company had the best training and safety culture.

At the media briefing a panel–which included Line Pilot, Capt Bandu Kumbalatara and Media Development, Manager, Deepal V Perera, refused to answer why the airline’s management had not taken action on earlier complaints related to Capt Ranaweera.
Capt Amadoru said he would not discuss medical matters of a colleague with anyone. The others maintained as there was an investigation on, they could not comment. There were now two inquiries into the incident, one by the company and another by the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

Meanwhile, H M C Nimalsiri, the DGCA, confirmed that there had been prior concerns about Capt Ranaweera. A complaint was first lodged with his office on January 9, 2015, by SriLankan’s former Manager (Flight Operations) Druvi Perera.
“He said Capt Ranaweera spoke to him on the phone in filthy language before cutting the line,” Mr Nimalsiri recounted. “Druvi was of the opinion that he showed erratic behaviour and was not fit to fly.” With the DGCA’s approval, the airline conducted an internal inquiry.

“Seven members were appointed with our consent,” he said. It was recommended that assistance also be obtained from a psychiatrist. Capt Ranaweera protested that he would not present himself for examination if only one psychiatrist was engaged.
Therefore, five were enlisted, of whom three turned up. “All three interviewed him and wrote afterwards that things were in order,” Mr Nimalsiri said. Other parameters, such as age, knowledge, experience, skill and proficiency, were also in order.
“We went on the advice of doctors who said nothing was wrong and we let him fly,” the DGCA said. He did confirm, however, that, “Here and there, pilots called and told me that they had observed unusual behaviour in Capt Ranaweera. I told them to send it to me in writing as I could not act on such complaints. But nobody complained to me in writing.”
Capt Ranaweera said he was not permitted to speak to media.

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