21st February 1999
Undercut, underpaid and under-rated
By Frederica Jansz
The lightning strike by Sri Lankan pilots of the national carrier has been temporarily settled but the pilots are furious and are accusing AirLanka's foreign management of treating them like third rate natives and subsidised labour.
The dispute between the Pilots Guild and the AirLanka management was settled on Friday night after it reached a near crash point.
For more than 24 hours, the entire fleet of the national carrier AirLanka lay grounded at Katunayake, while desperate negotiations were underway at the Ministry of Aviation to resolve the crisis between local pilots and the foreign team managing AirLanka. Captain Udaya Tillekeratne, President of the Pilots Guild said ministry officials had given a guarantee there would be no discrimination between Sri Lankan pilots and their foreign counterparts.
He said the ministry had assured that a deal on equal salaries and other matters would be put into shape and finalised within a month.
The Emirates airlines team, managing AirLanka had said it could give Sri Lankan pilots the same wage package as expatriate cockpit crew employed by AirLanka.
Local pilots told The Sunday Times they were reporting back to work temporarily and further action would be taken if the promises were not kept.
"We have been tricked so many times. We are not sure, if the promises they make will be met," Capt. Tillekeratne said.
The stormy marriage between Emirates Airlines and AirLanka contracted in haste on the day of fools last year has hit a thunderstorm within nine months.
As the troubled partnership continued, the Pilots Guild last Thursday stormed out of a meeting with the Emirates management after being told by Chief Executive Officer Andrew Gray that they "are stupid."
The three top pilots — Capt. Dulip de Alwis, Capt. Mohan Gunaratne, and Capt. Errol Wijeynayake had met Mr. Gray and AirLanka's Human Resources consultant Peter Sharman.
The angry pilots confronted the foreign team with documentary proof that Sri Lanka pilots were being discriminated by the new management. A stunned Mr. Gray could not deny the existence of internal memorandums signed by him, which had approved an increment in salary for foreign pilots flying for Air Lanka, that would be later included in a structured salary scale, or package deal, for Air Lanka cockpit crew.
The meeting which broke up in less than half an hour resulted in the pilots saying they had been pushed against the wall and would take action.
Mr. Gray replied: "There are plenty to fly the sky and you can be easily replaced."
Bristling with anger the Pilots Guild informed Captains of Air Lanka flight as they came into Colombo that Mr. Gray had antagonised them by making arbitrary statements. This resulted in captains and first officers deciding to ground AirLanka's entire fleet.
Captain Tillekeratne, visibly furious at the way Sri Lankan pilots were being treated by the Emirates team said, "when Mr. Gray was confronted and told that the local pilots suspected he had a master plan he got very angry. Mr. Gray then had the audacity to tell us he would get down Emirates pilots and fly our airline with our planes using our national rights." When we met the striking pilots on Friday they were sitting around a table, terribly hurt by the treatment meted out to them.
"Why should we as pilots for our national carrier take such blunders by someone who is brought into this country and paid USD 15,000 a month together with lots of other perks? We feel he works against the interest of the national carrier," one pilot said.
Mr. Gray denied accusations that the new management had attempted to discriminate against local pilots. He said the Emirates now however did have serious concerns about the effect on unit cost as all AirLanka planes had been grounded as a result of the strike.
"We have customers to serve and a business to run," he said, adding that the new management could not undertake the opportunities to expand if the airline was to be crippled in this manner. Asked how he felt as the controversial AirLanka-"Emirates partnership neared its first year, Mr. Gray said, "I really am very tired."
A package deal being offered by Emirates to local pilots has been under negotiations for the past eight months.
Captain Tillekeratne told The Sunday Times the new management had incurred the wrath of Sri Lankan pilots. While the package deal was being negotiated, the salary scale of expatriate pilots had been increased in a matter of three days by as much as 22.5% for captains flying the Tristar and by nearly 40% for captains flying the A320, he said.
He said that while there was a need for some expatriate pilots in certain areas, the objective of any national carrier should be to train local pilots.
A letter to Mr. Gray from the Manager Flight Operations on November 13, 1998, detailing a salary revision for all expatriate captains was approved within three days.
In the same letter Mr. Gray noted the increase in salary should be effective from December 1, 1998.
Capt. Milinda Ratnayake, Manager Flight Operations then wrote to expatriate captains informing them that this increase was an in-house revision and not the salary package offered by the new management, which he said would be much higher than the revision. In terms of this revision, expatriate captains flying the Tristar L-1011 get US$ 1,300 more which means a total salary of US$ 7,050. Foreign Captains on the Airbus A320 get US$ 2150 more, which means a total salary of USD 4000 in addition to other allowances.
A Sri Lankan captain is paid the equivalent of some Rs. 90,000. On February 2, the Pilots Guild told the new management it was not interested in the package deal.
"We said we are not interested in a 15% salary increase with so many strings attached," Capt. Tillekeratne said.
Since the deal was rejected the Pilots Guild stumbled upon a whole lot of memorandums that showed that at the time the new management was negotiating with the Pilots Guild, Emirates was giving the expatriate pilots unilateral in-house increments.
"The increment alone to these foreign captains is more than what I take home," Capt Nanayakkara said. Emirates, he said planned to recruit at least 100 more expatriate pilots which would place local pilots on a one to one scale, while the foreign recruits will earn two or three times more than their local counterparts.
Mr. Gray told The Sunday Times said AirLanka driven by circumstances had advertised for more expatriate pilots to facilitate the training programme for the six Airbus A-330s which are due later this year.
The first in October and the other five by April year 2000.
Mr. Gray said it had become necessary to recruit expatriate crew on the Tristars and A-320 fleets so that local crews could be transferred to the A-340 fleet prior to training them on the A-330. He said the advertisement for expatriate pilots drew a poor response due to the low salary scale quoted.
He said that expatriate pilots employed by the airline had been seeking better opportunities , and that it would be a tragedy if they were to leave..
Capt. J. Nanayakkara said, "our local pilots have been treated like third rate natives by the new management."
Capt. Tillekeratne said throughout the entire negotiations the Emirates management kept "dangling a carrot in front of us and each time we moved they took it away."
"So finally we said take it away we are not interested in their offer." The Emirates offer for the local pilots was a 1/3rd increase in basic salary and an incentive to fly maximum hours which would result in an 10 to 15% wage hike. Mr. Gray maintains the incentive to fly longer hours in not unusual and based on a collective agreement. He said the package deal offered a 50 to 100% increase in basic salary for Sri Lankan Pilots.
Aviation Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake said AirLanka had earned a profit of Rs. 750 million within the past nine months after entrusting management to Emirates.
This year, the Minister said AirLanka profits were expected to top one billion.
But an angry Capt. Nanayakkara said, "They are going to make Rs. One billion and basically use us as subsidized labour."
The chairman and other Directors at AirLanka meanwhile apparently remain sleeping directors as even the chairman admitted to the Pilots Guild that he was totally unaware that the salaries of expatriate pilots had been revised.
The Pilots' Guild of Sri Lanka is questioning the credentials of the flying licences of two Filipino pilots recruited by AirLanka, claiming that the airline had gone all out to get them the licence after failed attempts in Colombo.
The two Filipino pilots recruited by AirLanka under its programme of 100 foreign pilots arrived in Sri Lanka without their flying licenses because they had expired after the closure of the Phillippines Airlines last year, the Guild said.
"The two pilots were then sent to Doha, where they received training by a Sri Lankan instructor. On returning to Colombo, the Civil Aviation Department refused to grant them Sri Lankan pilot licenses on the basis their Philippine licenses had expired," an AirLanka local pilot said.
He said AirLanka then flew the two recruits to Singapore and the licences were re-validated by a Philippine instructor who was flown down to Singapore by AirLanka.
The Sri Lankan pilots say that this process goes against the airline's policy which states that only qualified expatriate pilots should be hired. Thus the recruitment of the two was in total contravention of all AirLanka manuals, the pilots say.
By Faraza Farook and Nilika de Silva
Some 700 AirLanka passengers were stranded on Friday because of the sudden strike by local pilots and many of them were seen kicking their heels at the airport not knowing what to do or where to go.
Airline and travel agency officials said hundreds of passengers who missed their flight were put up in top hotels in Katunayake, Negombo and Colombo. But scores of others stayed on hoping they could get an early alternative flight but the wait went on for hours.
A group of 18 young girls travelling to take up employment in a garment factory in Bahrain were stranded in the departure lounge, not quite knowing what was happening.
"We went to the agency at 9 in the morning and were asked to be at the airport by 1 p.m. The agency official dropped us at the airport and left. Now we don't know what to do. Our parents will be worried because we have no way of contacting them," one girl said.
Like them many other passengers were also unaware of what exactly was going on at the airport. People who telephoned the airport to make inquiries about the delays were put on hold for more than five minutes.
Mr. Shahir, a transit passenger on his way to Singapore with his wife had been at the airport since 5.30 a.m. When we met him at 3.30 p.m. at the departure lounge, he was still not sure what would happen.
G. Vigneswaran, another passenger, said: "Having to be at Coimbatore to take a flight to Delhi, I was originally due to leave at 12.30 p.m. but was asked to wait. When I inquired again the officials told me to come back at 2. Then I was told a similar thing. I am confused because the officials are not guiding me properly."
He was later provided accommodation at a hotel in Mt. Lavinia.
A woman passenger from Holland said "It's crazy. They deal in a very lousy way. I find it really shameful. It's not our fault that there is a strike." She was returning to Amsterdam after spending a week's holiday in Sri Lanka. She was not likely to come again.
Irma Rantala who was in Sri Lanka on holiday was scheduled to leave for Moscow at 4.30 p.m. "I called them before coming and they said there was to be a delay of 25 minutes but now it is over two hours."
Mr. and Mrs. de Sousa from France were in Sri Lanka on a two week holiday and were to fly to Male on Friday. They had to wait for more than five hours at the departure lounge.
Their problem was worse because they were unable to communicate in English and the officials at the Customer Relations Desk were unable to explain matters.
An official at the AirLanka's Customer Relations Desk said all flights had been delayed except those to Dubai and Madras. He said some passengers were given seats on flights of Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Indian Airlines.
Although airline officials stated that passengers were being kept informed of flight delays, many passengers who spoke to The Sunday Times' said they were not guided properly. Neither did the staff know much about what was happening.
The stranded passengers were the victims.
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