7th December 1997

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An Airline that went nowhere

AirLanka, the national airline of Sri Lanka, it appears, is to be given to foreign hands to manage.

Begun with great fanfare on September 1, 1979 the government of the day wanted a new airline with a new name to erase from the flying public the bad old image of its predecessor, Air Ceylon.

If the management skills of Singapore International Airlines (SIA) were co-opted at the initial stages, eighteen years down the tarmac having to turn to a relatively younger airline - Emirates to manage our flagship is indeed a tragic indictment on the management capabilities of a nation preparing to celebrate 50 years of independence with the new year.

Emirates Airlines, coming from an oil rich country, may have had the financial resources to attract the better air line managers of the world, but there’s no gainsaying that we Sri Lankans managed Air Lanka so poorly as if it was the private property of the president in power - and not as a viable commercial airline competing in the cut-throat competition of global civil aviation.

From its inception AirLanka and politics were twin-brothers. Public money was pumped into the airline in large volumes and at one time it was the second largest single public investment, second only to the multi-purpose Mahaveli project. And yet, AirLanka accounts were not accountable to Parliament. They had the best of both worlds and privileges no one else in Sri Lanka enjoyed.

It was a state venture when it wanted money, but it was a private company when that money had to be accounted for. Presidents and Parliaments treated Air Lanka as a "sacred cow".

And yet performance was poor. The airline at one stage was not trusted by a president who was its Minister. President Jayewardene kept its chairman and two aircraft on the tarmac while he went to the adjoining airfield and took a military aircraft for a SAARC conference in Bangalore.

Prime Minister Premadasa who once took the liberty of re-routing a scheduled AirLanka flight to Europe to the continent of Africa without the courtesy of informing fellow passengers, as President appointed his own Board that entered into agreements with airlines like Royal Jordan and purchased Airbuses because the local agents were his friends.

The first public act of President Wijetunga after he took oaths was to sack that AirLanka Board. The airline became a seductive high-priority attraction for those close to the president, some of whom slept at Board meetings and were there only to take the free tickets for themselves and their families.

Competence was not the sole criterion for appointment of Managers, General Sales Agents. And consolidators were appointed on political patronage. They did everything to knock down someone if he did not suck up and everything possible was done to promote someone if he was of the correct political colour. Results, efficiency were immaterial. In England alone, at least five of them ended playing out AirLanka, and AirLanka got played out with their eyes open. Yet, they were accountable to no one but God.

This government did no worse. Now, like everything else, this government is selling off every national asset anyone is willing to buy. Few know the details of the imminent sale of AirLanka shares to Emirates. These days, the Russian Kremlin is more transparent than our own privatisation programme.

"Transparency" remains a joke that was played on the voters, and the country is not kept informed of the deal in giving Emirates 40 per cent of the ownership and 100 of the management of AirLanka. We don’t know if its the best deal on the table.

We don’t know what the quid pro quo is, but let us also say this, that we are not against an exercise of this nature in principle, because AirLanka proved, sadly, that we Sri Lankans mix politics with everything and that we still have not realised that the over politicisation of a commercial venture is sure case disaster. Air Lanka eventually became an airline that went nowhere.

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