Suspension of melodious SriLankan pilot, too little too late

Aug 22, 2016 (LBO) – SriLankan Airlines, which usually gets in the spotlight for allegations of cronyism, has done a turnaround by suspending a pilot who failed a breathalyzer test. This may be a case of too little too late for the debt-laden airline.

Sri Lankan flight UL 554 out of Frankfurt Germany on the 19th of August faced a 15 hour delay after colleagues of the captain noticed a melodious voice at the pre-flight meeting. He was then asked to take a breathalyzer test.

A source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said his two co-pilots alerted their chief pilot in Colombo and requested that German authorities conduct the test.

The flight eventually departed for Colombo 15 hours later, but not before the airline bore a loss from accommodating all the passengers in hotels. It also owes them compensation according to European Union regulations.

Making the right move for once, the captain has been taken off all duties pending an inquiry.

The state-owned airline, a source of privilege and crony favoritism for its higher management, has been plagued with allegations of malpractice and lack of professionalism.

According to the source, a similar booze related incident took place in Bangkok few months ago — this time with a cabin crew member reporting for duty and failing a breathalyzer.

Nevertheless, the flight was operated after the cabin crew union head struck a deal with management for higher compensation. In return, the crew operated the flight despite exceeding their flight duty period, an international airline regulation, by 30 minutes.

A board of inquiry, headed by Attorney-at-Law J.C. Weliamuna, was appointed last year to probe corruption in SriLankan Airlines. The inquiry found shocking instances of corruption with billions of rupees in losses due to manipulations of service contracts, recruitment of unqualified staff and breaches of security.

The Weliamuna report said there was a clear inconsistency in the application of the rules and regulations in the airline and this was propelled by the influence wielded by the former chairman, CEO, COO, and head of human resources.

Several applicants who repeatedly failed entrance tests were recruited on verbal requests from management. There were irregularities in promotion and key appointments, including the appointment of former CEO as Director Sales and Promotions, Europe, a previously non-existent post.

It’s not surprising that the airline has total debt of 64.9 billion rupees (447 million dollars). However, the current chairman has reportedly said that there are no management issues worth speaking of, when contacted by media.

What is happening here? Is history repeating itself?

The cash-strapped airline is due to stop its flights to some European destinations from October and is planning to lease out some of its A330 planes to Pakistan Airlines and other airlines in an attempt to raise cash.

SriLankan Airlines said in a statement that without ‘one-off’ extraordinary payments related to restructuring activities, the airline’s group Loss was 8.9 billion rupees last year — a 46 percent improvement from the previous year mainly due to the drop in fuel prices.

What is clear is that Sri Lanka doesn’t have the managerial capacity and expertise to run a profitable airline competitive in the international arena. Now it badly needs the discipline of market forces.

It’s time to find a face-saving second option.