Much has been written about the loss-making national carrier for some time in the media and now a Commission has been appointed to investigate and inquire into alleged irregularities committed in connection with the Sri Lankan Airlines, Sri Lankan Catering and Mihin Airline. This is a welcome sign but such an endeavour should not be [...]

Business Times

Some reflections on SriLankan Airlines


Much has been written about the loss-making national carrier for some time in the media and now a Commission has been appointed to investigate and inquire into alleged irregularities committed in connection with the Sri Lankan Airlines, Sri Lankan Catering and Mihin Airline. This is a welcome sign but such an endeavour should not be another waste of taxpayers’ money at the end. Sri Lankan Airline’s board does not seem to have followed the recommendations made by the previous Commission on Air Lanka wittingly or unwittingly. Sri Lankan Airlines faltered because of capricious decisions of politicians as usual and nepotism.

File picture of a row of SriLankan Airlines planes on the tarmac.

Air Ceylon and Air Lanka

Air Ceylon had at that time the advantage of having top class captains most of whom were trained by foreign carriers to operate the aircraft that kept the national carrier within the safety standards and flying quality. During those days reputed international airlines such as BOAC/ UTA/KLM/QANTAS among others had afforded facilities for training of staff in key spheres of the airline that helped Air Ceylon move ahead.

President J.R. Jayewardene’s decision to start Air Lanka at that time with the assistance of the Premier of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew who created the most-prosperous country in Southeast Asia was a wise and strategic move as Singapore Airlines was profit-making and made available to the newly formed national carrier skilled staff and know-how. Thus the advent of Air Lanka in spite of rising costs of operation was another right step in the aviation history of this country. The then President hardly ever interfered with the affairs of the airline until malpractices and irregularities came to light that led to appoint a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The President appointed Captain Rakhita Wickamanayake as the Chairman and Managing Director. He was a senior Captain when Air Ceylon was wound up to make way for Air Lanka in association with Singapore Airlines but finally he had to leave on the recommendation of the Commission of Inquiry that was appointed subsequently by the same President that conducted an inquiry into the alleged irregularities and maladministration. An Interim Report was submitted to the President after preliminary investigations upon which the board was asked to resign. Malpractices by an experienced Captain as Chairperson/MD could be many if that person lacks knowledge and practical experience in administration, procedures and other rules and practices. The Chairman/MD acted reportedly on his whims and had been authoritarian. However a bit of credit should go to the then Chairman/MD who trained, disciplined and instilled flying qualities of pilots and cabin crew using his flying experience despite his failures in administrative and other vital spheres. As a result of which Customer Services also were commended and the catch phrase: “Taste of Paradise” was closer though elusive. In this context taking a lesson SriLankan Airlines needs to revive customer services once again. Later the airline lost its footing once again when Emirates was asked to leave.

The Commission of Inquiry of 1986 advised to keep the two positions of Chairperson and MD separately perhaps because it was found that a combined post of that type could be disastrous as the findings revealed as to how authoritarian the former Chairman/MD had been. Theoretical knowledge alone is insufficient for in any field that needs practical and proven experience. Findings of the Commission disclosed how a senior Captain sans administrative knowledge acted contrary to established rules and procedures ignoring good practices in making decisions which were found to be arbitrary and authoritarian.

It was suggested that a Senior Captain could be considered for appointment as Chairperson or CEO. It may be helpful to have an experienced Captain also as a member of the Board but not necessarily as CEO or Chairperson. The reason is that a senior Captain is always available as Head of Operations who could be consulted by the Board when required.

A CEO or Chairperson should be a competent person familiar with relevant areas of the airline business, and procedures. Interested politicians may contradict this position for obvious reasons. The writer remembers how Air Ceylon was pronounced as the “Safest Airline in the world” of course a national pride although some financial and other issues were reported. It is sad to note that undue interference by relevant politicians in the public service and other similar public institutions caused misery in many fields in this country since the enactment of Constitution of 1972.

National pride

An airline will be a national pride to a country if it is well managed. Losses of SriLankan Airlines as reported amounting to billions certainly could be attributed to many factors. It is clear that so called “businessmen” have failed so far in this business of running an airline for the simple fact that a successful businessman in any other business may be out of place in the matters of business of an airline especially with political interference. Therefore a competent leader as Chairperson who is knowledgeable of laws and procedures is sine qua non. A Board should be given a free hand to show results without unnecessary interference. Whoever who is appointed to a Board must be familiar with rules and procedures, if not that person must be a person with common sense to consult the relevant authorities and act sensibly.

Despite the free hand given by the relevant Minister to the Board under the present government, the Board still failed to perform and presumably mismanaged the airline without much consideration being given to strategic restructuring/turnaround management, cost cutting exercise at the right time.

Major decisions should be taken with the approval of the Board and such decisions have to be taken in the best interest of the airline. The Board must be able to ensure the right balance of skills, experience and acumen in all matters. Studies with regard to route network, pricing, sales, promotion strategy and forecast, market analysis and strategy and implementation, market fluctuations of fares and rates of cargo should be continuously undertaken.

Lessons for reform

One lesson learnt from the past is to keep the airline free from political interference once a Board with capable and experienced persons is appointed. If the management of the airline is left in the hands of competent persons without undue political interference allowing a right-sizing exercise the airline would show profits gradually by bringing in revenue. To enhance and maintain the prestige of any airline flying qualities of its pilots, cabin staff, quality of engineering in the maintenance of its aircraft, proper maintenance of safety standards and competitive and successful commercial operations with workable extension strategy should be in place. Standards should remain high at all times. Maintaining undisrupted timely services adhering to the time schedules, courteous and friendly passenger services and quality catering services will not only attract passengers but also keep the airline flying with colours of which the country can be proud of.

Cancellations, re-routings and delays due to VIP movements should not be allowed as happened in the past that caused heavy losses thereby losing passengers to other airlines that resulted in loss of revenue.

If politicians are so patriotic then they must concern themselves not only about safety of the country but also about the progress of the country as well to be meaningful patriots. Patronage whether personal or political, in making appointments to the key posts (except for personal staff and a few essential ones) that continues to ignore the capable and qualified professionals will further ravage the country as a whole. Abuse of public funds becomes a major issue when a person without integrity is appointed to be the Chairperson who is especially from a political family. Nepotism is another malady in this country. Sadly this is one of the signs of a failing nation. The Weliamuna Report too is said to have found fault with the former Chairman and some high officials under the previous government who abetted him in taking adverse decisions that made the airline debt ridden and collapse. Reportedly even the newly appointed Board by the “yahapalana government” under which some of those found fault by the Weliamuna Commission have been promoted without having any inquiry being held.

The necessity of appointing Commissions of Inquiry will not arise if the Board and the senior management follow the financial and administrative procedures with necessary audit checks at the right time. Public funds can be saved in case of any deviation or breach is found and proper action is taken promptly. There are enough laws to deal with such circumstances.

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and former Secretary, Department of Law Commission -Ministry of Justice)

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