From where does the UNP, the major partner of the yahapalanaya government, produce such wunder kinder? Since King Kekille made his remarkable contributions to jurisprudence we have not seen much original thought except perhaps in our great institution by the Oya which will soon be celebrating its 70th anniversary. That is until now. Today we [...]


National carrier or a plaything of the board


From where does the UNP, the major partner of the yahapalanaya government, produce such wunder kinder? Since King Kekille made his remarkable contributions to jurisprudence we have not seen much original thought except perhaps in our great institution by the Oya which will soon be celebrating its 70th anniversary.
That is until now. Today we have men of many words strutting around like politically-anointed popinjays. The other day the great pundits in charge of education are said to have decided that those who fail the GCE “O” level examination be allowed to sit for the “A” level examination or some such thing.

SriLankan Airlines CEO Suren Ratwatte

There is originality for you. The idea seems to have been picked up from our political practices. Persons who are rejected by the people at elections end up in parliament. Not only that, they even find themselves in the cabinet. So what does it matter if those who fail to pass the “O” level go a few steps higher.
The current crop of MPs who have failed the O level can now claim to have studied at A level. Why stop at the A level, why not give them places at the universities and even confer a degree on the blessed lot.

But not even such a decision can out do the audacious call of Suren Ratwatte, CEO of SriLankan Airlines who wants the national carrier run essentially by the board of directors and for the government to keep its filthy paws off the airline. For a man who was a pilot at Emirates and has little or no experience in running an airline this surely was several steps up the ladder. Some say it was a ‘call’ from political high ups from the same alma mater that deposited him in the chair of the CEO.

So the top three at SriLankan Airlines are from the same college and are identified by the letters FRCS which has gained such notoriety that the many jokes about it have spread far and wide. Alas, some of those fly-by–nights who were placed in positions of power and privilege, fell by the wayside. They were declared not fit for purpose though they were certainly fit for other purposes which are now under inquiry by a presidential commission.

Others are clinging on for dear life hoping the grey clouds above will soon roll by and they will be able to continue in the arbitrary ways of their predecessors.
If one might pick a single example as proof of how rules and regulations are thrown to the four winds what better illustration than our own national carrier known to the world of aviation and tourism as SriLankan Airlines.

In the two and half years that SriLankan has been afloat under the yahapalanaya administration it has already gone down in history as perhaps the only national airline of a democratic country whose directors were summoned before the country’s president and cabinet ministers and berated for failure to carry out recommendations of a board of inquiry.

They were closely questioned over its management practices and methods (or lack of them) and a host of failures including the habit of sidelining the Minister of Public Enterprise and Development. His ministry oversees the national carrier which some knowledgeable people in the industry call the national corpse and others the national curse.

Whichever sobriquet is chosen to describe the airline even the most ill-educated would know that it is no compliment to the airline especially so when its chairman and chief executive officer seem to be in cahoots trying to stay away from stormy weather.

Chairman Ajith Dias has thankfully taken a vow of silence, at least in recent days. But the irrepressible CEO Suren Ratwatte, a pilot who seems to think he has descended from Olympus instead from 35,000 feet and came to occupy the CEO post, keeps shooting his mouth off like he was a born again Pericles. What drew attention to the health of the national airline was an interview given to a Sri Lankan website by Suren Ratwatte trying to talk his way out of the pitiful state of the airline and trying to pass the buck without accepting responsibility for not acting on the Weliamuna report.

It is nothing new, of course, for the national carrier, under the present administration which has developed a tendency to say “not I sir” when its big wigs are caught with their fingers in the jam jar. In the interview Ratwatte sets out four issues that need to be dealt with if the airline is to “return to financial health”. Those issues have been debated by more knowledgeable persons and however much Ratwatte tries to sweep the present administration’s faults under the bed he is hardly likely to succeed mostly because his arrogance, pomposity and treatment of staff including pilots have antagonised many at the airline.

Our interest however is not on these issues but Ratwatte’s attempts show that the airline could be lifted out of the morass in which it finds itself if the airline’s board of directors is allowed to function independently without others monitoring its decision-making and activities from above. I dare say that this Ratwatte will make a good stand-up comedian if ever he loses his position at the airline. Let the maestro on airline resuscitation characterise himself in his own words:

“I believe the board of directors should be in charge of running the airline. At the end of the day we need to function in such a way. If we have to seek higher approvals further up the tree because of the shareholding it changes the entire structure and makes it very difficult to run a commercial company. Then we become something else.”

Is this guy for real or has he just picked a few phrases from the commercial world and is trying to impress some reporter when the real problem is the board of directors to whom he wants the running of the airline handed over lock, stock and barrel.

What is curious is that the CEO complains that while the government is the major shareholder it has not capitalised the airline at levels needed. So he expects the State as major shareholder to pump in adequate capital and at the same time allow the director board to run the company abandoning its oversight responsibilities.
In short Ratwatte is telling the State give us more capital and let the director board run the airline as it deems fit.

Therein lies the rub. When President Sirisena summoned the airline board and he and his ministers questioned the directors it was because it was perceived that the chairman and CEO were taking decisions that apparently were contrary to the views of many on the board. In fact as I said some months ago when the directors appeared before the president and the ministers there was a clear division of opinion and the board seemed as divided as Gaul in Caesar’s time.

“It is clear that the board is badly divided,” President Maithripala Sirisena was quoted as saying by a ministerial source at the meeting, a news report said. “The President felt that the allegations against the SriLankan board are true.” “What the cabinet found out today is that the CEO and the chairman have been taking arbitrary decisions that were not in the interest of the airline,” the same ministerial source was quoted as saying. He said the president insisted that the recommendations of the Weliamuna report be implemented immediately.

It was Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who appointed a committee of inquiry headed by senior lawyer J.C Weliamuna to look at the state of the national airline. The inquiry report made several strictures and called for action to be taken including filing criminal proceedings against the previous chairman and the CEO. It also made critical remarks about the current head of human resources who was at the airline during the previous administration.

The Weliamuna inquiry found that Pradeepa Kekulawala, the head of Human Resources, allowed sexual perverts a free run. The current management has not taken any action against Kekulawala, ministers had been told. More recently there have been differences of opinion between the Pilots Guild on several issues, one that seemed to concern the safety of aircraft.

Media reports have highlighted the goings on at SriLankan. In one instance a virtual scholarship was granted to Ratwatte costing the tax payer around US$ 50,000.This led Chairman Ajith Dias to make what airline sources are said to have claimed was an unprecedented move. He is said to have ordered Capt. Rajind Ranatunga the Head of Flight Operations to hand over the entire Crew Rostering Department to Pradeepa Kekulawala the airline’s Head of Human Resources reports said. He is under a cloud following the Weliamuna report but Dias is looking the other way.

This is after Capt. Ranatunga had only a few days earlier written to CEO Ratwatte and asked him to ‘back off’, after the CEO had muscled his way and got his assigned Line Flying Instructor changed to an Instructor of his choice for his first flight scheduled for July 12, 2017.

These instances are but a few of what has not only been reported in the media but have been the talk in Colombo’s chattering circles. Take for instance a request made to the airline under the Right to Information Act for details of the salaries, allowances, perks enjoyed by those at the top of the pile. The airline has refused to release this information.

This is not information that could be refused under Article 5 of the RTI law which sets out the exemptions. But the airline is deliberately refusing to provide this because the public will then know the huge salaries, perks and privileges that the top officials have got together and carved out for themselves. It is to this board which has found to be fractious as President Sirisena’s words clearly imply, that CEO Ratwatte wants to entrust the management of the airline.
In a press release issued by the airline somewhere in August 2016 it said that there was now “heightened accountability”. That surely is curious when the airline refuses to answer questions under an RTI law which this government is proud of.

When the board was under fire and feeling the heat, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who appointed the board, is said to have mentioned that he would be reconstituting the board. President Sirisena was also hoping that after such a battering the chairman would have the civility and good sense to pack up and go home to enjoy a more restful life. In this way the president hoped he would not have to act and throw the whole lot out. It would have been bad for the government and he wanted to avoid that.

Well, three months have passed and nothing has happened. What is it that the French say: “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

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