By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
A few weeks ago, the general public learnt of a tragicomedy taking place at the loss making national carrier, SriLankan Airlines. It all began with three airline security officials attempting to carry out a random breathalyzer test on a senior captain when he reported to operate flight UL402 on August 28 to Bangkok. According to informed sources, the pilot claims he had not declined to undergo the breathalyzer test, but had questioned the security officials the basis on which he had been randomly selected to be tested. He had been eventually permitted to operate the flight without undergoing the test, but was subsequently suspended from duties without pay. Initially charged for refusing to undergo a breathalyzer test which amounts to being found under the influence of alcohol also known as positive testing, he was subsequently charge sheeted for other misdemeanors. During the inquiry held on October 04, the accused (pilot) had objected to the Inquiring Officer selected by the airline. An altercation had taken place during a previous inquiry when the accused had taken part in the capacity of Defending Officer. Due to objection raised, the inquiry had been postponed.
During a recent meeting, the Chief Executive Officer had been requested for an update on the inquiry. The CEO had briefed those present of the objection raised by the accused (pilot) to the Inquiring Officer appointed by the company, and of efforts being made by the HR Division to find a replacement. In response to a question raised on the justification in suspending the pilot without pay, the CEO had informed it was standard procedure.
It had then transpired, the company’s Manager Security Operations (MSO) too had been suspended from duties. He is the immediate supervisor of the three airline security officials involved in attempting to initially breathalyze the pilot. The MSO has been charged with failure to prevent a pilot testing positive, from operating the flight.
The suspension had taken place after the Pilot’s Guild had written to management to ascertain reasons for security staff involved in the incident not being suspended for permitting a pilot testing positive (according to management) from operating a flight.
The suspension of the MSO who was not present when the incident took place rather than the security officials involved could possibly be as a result of them having consulted their immediate supervisor for instructions, prior to permitting the pilot to operate the flight.
The CEO had pleaded ignorance to the query of the MSO too being suspended without pay. After consulting relevant staff, he had sheepishly informed that the MSO had been suspended with pay.
As reported in the media last Sunday, the issue had found its way to the Board of Directors who had resolved to pay the pilot his salary with arrears. A vote taken had resulted in four votes in favor of restoring the pilot’s salary and two votes including that of the Chairman against. It is understood both the Chairman and CEO are livid with the majority decision on grounds it undermines the management.
It is now left to be seen if the Board decision will be overturned by divine intervention which is standard operating procedure when Board decisions are contrary to the wishes of Royalty.
It is said in some quarters, this particular pilot who is a senior captain is considered a “Karadara Karayek” due to his straight talking no nonsense attitude.
This episode has far greater implications than the suspension of a pilot and a MSO with or without pay. It opens a Pandora’s box of management style and practices for which the CEO needs to be held accountable.
Firstly, the decision to suspend the pilot without pay and a security manager with pay involved in the same incident smacks of extreme bias. Well managed organizations, especially winners of national awards for best HR practices do not indulge in such unethical practices.
Secondly, it involves the all-important issue of the safety of 144 passengers and 9 crew members who travelled in the flight that night. It was the airline’s decision to subject this particular pilot to a random breathalyzer test. Regardless whether the pilot declined the test or questioned the basis of the test, a pilot testing positive as per regulations has been permitted to operate the flight.
The questions begging answers are; why was a pilot testing positive permitted to operate a flight endangering 153 lives and who was responsible for the decision?
A decision of such a magnitude is way beyond the competencies and job size of security officers or even Managers. It would normally require the involvement of the Head of Flight Operations and perhaps even the CEO in the decision-making process. In the past, all matters involving pilots including the recent incident at Frankfurt airport have been referred to Head of Flight Operations for decisions.
Since it has obviously not been the case in the night of August 28, it is also pertinent to pose the questions; has the CEO instituted an inquiry to ascertain reasons for these administrative failures and has he implemented measures to prevent similar occurrences in the future?
Whereas the CEO is responsible for the day to day operations of the airline, the Board of Directors tasked with managing the airline must bear ultimate responsibility.