Colombo Telegraph

National Carrier’s Airbus Story; Going Down Memory Lane

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

Rajeewa Jayaweera

Most old timers of Air Lanka /SriLankan Airlines would have read the recent news item of the last Airbus A340-300 being taken out of service with some sadness, especially those who witnessed the induction of Airbus aircraft to the National Carrier’s fleet commencing 1993.

The first in depth study for re-fleeting was carried out some time during 1987/88 during the stewardship of former Civil Servant Lakshman de Mel as Chairman. Directors included such eminent industry captains as Lal Jayasundera of Hayleys and MTL Fernando of Ernst & Young. They project was spearheaded by the then American CEO John Fleming who had a Corporate Planning Dept. carrying out the necessary spade work. The study concluded to replace the aging Boeing 737 with a newer version of Boeing 737 and Lockheed L1011 aircraft with Boeing 767 aircraft.

Presidents changed in January 1989. A new Board of Directors headed by another eminent civil servant Bradman Weerakoon was appointed. CEO John Fleming received his marching orders and the lady Manager who headed the Corporate Panning Dept. called it a day. The Corporate Planning Dept. itself ceased to function. Plans to re-fleet died a natural death. Chairman Weerakoon too did not last long and left by June to become Advisor on International Relations to the President. He was replaced by a senior SLAS officer MGD (Dunstan) Jayawardena who was the Chairman of UDA.

Other Board members were then Secretary to Treasury / Ministry of Finance, an eminent lawyer and two leading businessmen (one of them was also the Presidential son-in-law designate).

Several attempts by the then Chief Marketing Officer, an American, to convince the Board of Directors of the need to re-fleet were not successful. Sometime in 1991, in desperation, he managed to have some photographs of broken seats, torn carpets and other defects sent to President Premadasa through the Presidential son-in-law. The reward he received for his efforts was the non-renewal of his employment contract at the end of his three year term. Meanwhile, the President issued instructions to re-fleet and the process began in earnest. Since the former American CEO had recommended Boeing 737 and 767 aircraft, it was decided to proceed with the acquisition of two A320 and five A340-300 aircraft without a fresh comparative study. The two A320 aircraft were scheduled for delivery on 01 January 1993 and the second in April 1993. As is customary in this land like no other, allegations of bribes and kickbacks became the preoccupation of many and a lead news item for several months. Nevertheless, funds were made available for the lease purchases through the two state banks, Insurance Corporation and one or two other government institutions.

The Advertising & Promotions Dept., which this writer headed at the time, was responsible for activities involving publicity for publicizing the induction of the state of the art ‘fly by wire’ aircraft with many computerized features, receiving the first aircraft, its maiden flight and inaugural flight to Delhi. The budget allocated for all these activities and including media advertising was around USD 15,000. Airbus Industries, as part of the Purchase Agreement provided USD 5,000 worth of collateral material, produced by them, based to our specifications. Air Lanka faced the usual problem faced by all airlines when inducting a new aircraft type. Whereas media activity would commence a few months prior to the induction, no photographs or visuals are available of the new aircraft type with the airline’s logo and livery. Painting of new aircraft is carried out at the tail end. We overcame the problem by using a graphic design of a frontal view of an A320 with its wings, two engines and two redlines on either side, similar to the front view of our existing aircraft, thus giving it a touch of Air Lanka. The fifty thousand bumper stickers printed for the event were in demand by motorists, trishaws and Delica Vans, then used for public transport.

Other planned activities were to hold two large musical shows involving leading artists at the Bogambara Grounds in Kandy and Galle Face in Colombo on 01 January 1993 with thousands of handbills to be distributed. It was necessary to win over the masses. The incoming A320 would fly low over the Temple of Tooth Relic and the Presidential Secretariat dipping its wings in salute to the Tooth Relic and the Head of State. President Premadasa was the Chairman of SAARC. We accordingly proposed and it was approved to name the first A320 ‘Spirit of SAARC’. A full colour poster with the aircraft front visual and calendar of 1993 in Sinhala, Tamil and English were to be printed and included inside every Lakehouse publication. I, jokingly suggested to the Chairman he crack a bottle of Champagne on the nose wheel. His response is unprintable! The maiden flight was to be the inaugural flight to Delhi, Air Lanka’s newest destination, decided by President Premadasa over the airline’s objections. Future developments proved him to be right and the airline to be wrong.

In the midst of all this work and excitement, we received instructions to delay the arrival of the first A320 till 23 January. Initially, no reasons were given. It later transpired that astrologers had predicted a great calamity would befall the country, should the aircraft arrive in Sri Lanka prior to 23 January 1993. The aircraft, which was ready for handover / takeover in Toulouse, France on 31 December 1992, was covered with tarpaulin and kept in a remote area in the Airbus compound. Our biggest nightmare was of a photograph appearing in the media of an aircraft worth around USD 30 million sitting idle on a tarmac, which fortunately did not happen. It was a time before hand phones with cameras and social media. For inexplicable reasons, we were instructed to cancel all promotional activities targeting the general public and to limit our activities to commercial promotions.

The long awaited brand new A320 bearing registration 4R ABA touched down in Colombo in the morning of 23 January 1993. It was a low key event and the only ceremony permitted was chanting of Seth Pirith once the aircraft had landed. I recollect discovering at the last minute, we had overlooked to arranged for white sheets to cover the seats inside the aircraft for the Buddhist Priests. The captain had to be radioed to keep circling over Colombo till a vehicle was dispatched and white sheets obtained on loan from a nearby hotel.

Even though the official maiden flight was to be the inaugural flight to Delhi, the aircraft took off to Bodh Gaya on the following day with 100 devotees. They were to witness President Premadasa who had left for India separately, handing over the Gold Plated Barrier and Canopy to the Sri Maha Bodhiya in Bodh Gaya and 100 houses constructed by GoSL to a group of scheduled cast Buddhists in the area. The group of ‘devotees’ consisted of many colourful personalities including the Chief Priest of the Gangaramaya Temple, the owner of Nawaloka Group, Bobby Adams of John Keels fame, to name a few.

On 01 May 1993, President Premadasa was assassinated. Many would wonder if the astrologers who predicted a great calamity befalling the nation, should the aircraft arrive prior to 23 January got their dates mixed up. President DB Wijetunga who succeeded President Premadasa requested the Board to resign. The new Board was headed by a retired General. Only the Secretary to Treasury / Finance Ministry of the previous Board was reappointed. An investigation was undertaken to ascertain if any bribes had been involved and if purchase price for aircraft was excessive. Meanwhile, deliveries were suspended. Finally the order for five A340-300 aircraft was reduced to three. Eventually Airbus Industries threatened legal action. The first A340-300 arrived on 01 September 1994. The rest is history.

Postscript;

Emirates, in 1998, acquired a 40% stake of Air Lanka and its management for ten years. One of their first acts was to order six A330-200 aircraft to replace the five ancient L1011 aircraft. The first A330-200 with its new logo and livery arrived sometime in late 1999. The L1011s were phased out simultaneously with the arrival of the new A330-200s. The new A330-200s contained the new name SriLankan, modified logo and livery, whereas the old L1011 aircraft continued to fly with the old Air Lanka logo and livery. Sometime in 2001, on the day the last L1011 was taxing off on its last flight, a brand new A330-200 with new logo and livery touched down on the runway, witnessed by hundreds of employees in Katunayake who had turned up to bid adieu to Air Lanka. Photographers captured this historic moment of the departing tired old Air Lanka and the arriving vibrant new SriLankan Airlines, in one visual. Those of us who welcomed the changes and the break away from the shekels of government control breathed a sigh of relief. Those who could not appreciate the changes applauded the departing Air Lanka L1011 and hooted at the arriving SriLankan A330-200. The sentimental, were teary eyed.

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