By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Shortly after the recent fiasco of a captain at SriLankan Airlines being found under the influence of alcohol at the time of reporting to operate a flight out of Frankfurt, the airline introduced random ‘breathalyzer tests’ for flight crew. Shortly after its introduction, a senior captain was requested to undergo such a test when he reported for duty at the Colombo Airport. The request was supposedly made by three security staff without the presence of a qualified medical staff. In the ensuing discussion, the captain had questioned the basis for being singled out for a random breathalyzer test and the competence of the three security staff to carry out such an exercise. However, the captain contends, at no point in time did he decline to be subjected to a test. He was eventually permitted to operate the flight without undergoing the test. During the overnight stay overseas, the captain had been instructed not to operate the return fight and a substitute captain had taken his place. Upon his return, he had been suspended from work without pay. According to international regulations, refusal to undergo a breathalyzer test is an offence similar to that of being found under the influence of alcohol prior to operating a flight.
The show cause letter dated September 11, 2016 received by the captain involved, hereafter referred to as ‘accused’, contains eleven charges. The dates set for the inquiry, to be held at the Financial Control Room in Katunayake was October 4, 10 and 12 October 2016. The proceedings were to be presided by an ‘Independent Inquiry Officer’, appointed by the airline.
On October 04, at the outset, the accused had been informed, proceedings would be conducted in Sinhala. The accused had informed, the airline’s working language being English and past internal inquiries involving flight crew having been held in English, the proposed deviation was unacceptable. The Inquiring Officer had relented, after stating the statements of the three security personnel involved in the breathalyzer test incident was in Sinhala.
Once the Inquiring Officer commenced proceedings, the accused, who conducted his own defence had raised an objection. During such internal inquiries, it is customary for Inquiring Officers to ascertain from both the prosecution and defence, of the presence of any objectionable person or persons at the venue. The Inquiring Officer had professed not to be aware of any such practice.
The accused had then reminded him of a previous domestic inquiry when the same person had been Inquiring Officer and the accused had been the Defending Officer when proceedings had commenced after ascertaining of the presence of any person/s objectionable to the prosecution and defence.
The accused had then registered his objections to the presence of the Inquiring Officer who, during a previous inquiry had supposedly attempted to tamper with a defence witness to which the accused, in his role as Defending Officer, had vehemently objected.
The inquiry had then been suspended and objections raised by the accused referred to the management.
As this saga unfolds, two aspects would appear obvious. Firstly, it would appear to be an attempt to victimize a staff member who is a senior captain and a known critic of the management. Secondly, the airline seems to be totally at sea and unprepared to handle such a disciplinary inquiry.
The company’s working language is English. All manuals related to flight operations are in English. All employees involved in the investigation from Security, Flight Operations and HR departments require proficiency in English language to hold their respective positions. The statement obtained by the airline from the accused upon his return to Colombo as well as the suspension and show cause letters issued by the airline are in English. Therefore, the attempt to hold the inquiry in Sinhala language may be construed as an attempt at intimidating the accused. Further, both in public and private sectors, an employee is generally placed under interdiction or suspended from duties without pay in instances the purported misdemeanor involves a financial irregularity or has resulted in a financial loss to the organization. However, in this instance, the accused has been placed on ‘no pay’ for a purported misdemeanor not involving financial misappropriation or loss to the company.
A letter of suspension dated August 30, 2016 titled ‘Letter of Suspension from Work / Refusal to undergo a breathalyzer test, UL402 CMB/BKK 28 August 2016’ has been issued to the accused. Flying Staff Instructions (FSI) No 255 dated 25 August 2016 clause 4 stipulates; ‘Refusal by an employee to undergo the testing process is considered a breach of the Alcohol and Psychoactive Substance Testing Policy and will be treated as a positive test result. Disciplinary action would be taken according to the company disciplinary procedure/CAASL Regulations’. Since the suspension letter dated August 28 refers to ‘Refusal to undergo a breathalyzer test’, the company is in breach of its own circular FSI No 255 clause 4 by permitting the accused to operate UL402 on 28 August. However, none of the eleven charges listed in the Show Cause letter dated September 11, 2016 refers to a ‘refusal to undergo a breathalyzer test’. The reason for the suspension would appear to have changed between August 28 and September 11.
SriLankan Airlines was awarded a national award for Best HRM Practices a few years ago. The decision by the Human Resources Dept. responsible for all disciplinary matters to appoint an individual with a record of an altercation with the accused during a previous inquiry is a reflection of total disregard for procedures, ethics and best practices. Had the HR dept. representative present at the inquiry not reported the incident to management, it is a serious omission. Inquiring Officers found attempting to tamper with witnesses are essentially blacklisted. The previous altercation between the Inquiring Officer and accused essentially disqualifies the Independent Inquiring Officer from playing any role in this inquiry.
Despite all the grandiose statements on accountability and transparency by current top management, there seem to be little difference in the modus operandi at SriLankan Airlines, prior to and after 09 January 2015.