By Frederica Jansz and Dinouk Colombage –
Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa went berserk when contacted by The Sunday Leader to clarify and find outif he was aware that the management at SriLankan Airlines had taken a decision to change a wide bodied A340 scheduled to fly to Zurich on Friday July 13, to a smaller A330. The change was to be made so that a SriLankan Airline pilot, who is dating a niece of President Mahinda Rajapaksa could personally fly the aircraft that would carry a ‘puppy dog’ for Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa from Zurich.
The Sunday Leader was told by senior airline pilots that 56 passengers would have had to be off-loaded if the aircraft was changed.
The pilot concerned is Capt. Praveen Wijesinghe who currently is dating Flight Officer Madini Chandradasa, the niece of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. When asked, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, while denying that he had any knowledge that CEO Kapila Chandrasena had ordered the change of aircraft from an A340 to an A330 as Capt. Wijesinghe was not qualified to fly the bigger aircraft, admitted that Capt. Wijesinghe would indeed be ‘passengering’ on one sector so he could bring down the dog for his wife. “Yes they are bringing a puppy – it is for my wife. There is nothing wrong with that. I have every right to bring not just a dog but an elephant on SriLankan if I so wish – I am paying for the cargo. I have every right to bring anything I want. This is not the first time – before this also they brought a dog for me…what is wrong – I am paying for the cargo I have every right,” Rajapaksa said.
When it was pointed out that bringing the dog was not the issue – but a loss of revenue for the airline as an entire aircraft was to be replaced with a smaller bodied plane – resulting in the loss of 56 passengers, Rajapaksa turned abusive.
Using foul language he screamed, “If you write one bloody word I will sue the writer and your newspaper – which I have already done – I am not afraid of the bloody courts – I will sue you and shut down your f……. newspaper.” (click here for full conversation)
The Sunday Leader was told that the decision to change the aircraft scheduled to fly to Zurich on Friday July 13, from an A330 back to an A340 was made only after members of the Pilots’ Guild vehemently protested to the Head of Flight Operations Capt. Navin de Silva.
However, both Capt. Ruwan Withanage, President of the Airline Pilots’ Guild of Sri Lanka (ALPGSL) and Capt. Navin de Silva subsequently denied that senior pilots had pressured the management into reverting on their original decision to fly an A330 instead of an A340 to Zurich to suit Capt. Wijesinghe so he could bring down the puppy.
Kapila Chandrasena, Chief Executive Officer for SriLankan Airlines when first contacted refused to answer any questions on this issue over the telephone but asked for an email to be sent. After this was done, he replied saying he would request the Manager of Crew Resources to respond to our email.
Instead, Ranjith de Silva, Senior Manager Corporate Communications, sent us a response which said, “aircraft allocation to routes are based on the flying range. A330/A340 aircrafts are generally used for long range travel.” He added that generally an A330 or A340 is deployed on the European routes, while the change in the aircrafts is based on the commercial requirements.
He refused to comment on whether or not a dog for Rajapaksa was to be transported on this flight.
Kapila Chandrasena however subsequently did speak with us reiterating that he knew nothing of this matter. Asked if he did not know about the puppy dog to be brought down from Zurich for the Defence Secretary he said, “No. I know nothing – I don’t know what this controversy is all about”.
Asked if at any stage a decision was taken to change an A340 scheduled to fly to Zurich on Friday July 13, to an A330 in order to accommodate Capt. Praveen Wijesinghe to fly to Zurich, Chandrasena replied, “we do make those decisions based on passenger load – and that we do all the time though usually it is an A340 that flies the second leg from the Middle East to Zurich”.
It was to ascertain the veracity of this story that we contacted not only SriLankan Airlines officials but the Defence Secretary as well to find out if he was aware of this situation.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa confirmed that indeed Capt. Praveen Wijesinghe was to travel on July 13 to Zurich to bring down a puppy dog for his wife. “He is a friend of mine and he offered to do so,” Rajapaksa said.
However, Capt. Wijesinghe contradicted Gotabaya Rajapaksa by saying, “No, I do not even know if we would be bringing a dog from Zurich to Colombo. That sort of information is not known until the day of the flight.”
Wijesinghe after making this pronouncement telephoned us again to warn us saying, “If nothing but the truth is reported about my girl friend or myself, I will be forced to take legal action.”
The fact is, Capt, Wijesinghe is rostered to fly the first leg of this journey – Colombo – Kuwait or Doha (the middle eastern destination is decided depending on the passenger load) on an A330 and from thereon passenger on an A340 to Zurich.
Wijesinghe admitted to The Sunday Leader that he was indeed recently rostered to fly an A330 on the first sector from Colombo to Kuwait or Doha on Friday July 13. He said he would fly the initial sector up to the Middle East and thereafter travel the rest of the journey as a passenger. “I will only be flying the A330 leg, while the A340 will be flown by someone else.” He further said that he is not qualified to fly an A340 and if he did he would be facing a possible jail term.