By Sarath de Alwis –
The current cause célèbre over the position of Sales Manager of SriLankan Airlines in London is a reaffirmation of the hopelessness, futility and the sheer lunacy of hoping to run an efficient, profitable state owned airline. A state owned enterprise is everybody’s business and nobody’s liability.
The United Kingdom has the largest Sri Lankan diaspora community. Sri Lankan airlines with daily flights to London is the umbilical cord that keeps all those of Sri Lankan origin in the United Kingdom in a state of perpetual patriotic pregnancy. I borrowed and amended the curiously covetous phrase ‘permanent pregnancy’ from the Indian American émigré writer Jumpha Lahiri’s novel ‘The Namesake.’
‘Ethnic traffic’ is a pivotal component in the ‘marketing mix of the National Carrier. The Foreign Service and the Aviation industry of the ‘Mathru Bhimiya ‘are the two domains over which almost every Sri Lankan in ‘Old Blighty’ will claim matchless mastery. I make these authoritative pronouncements from experience gathered during nearly eighteen months of serving as the Manager of Air Lanka in the United Kingdom under the Executive Presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa.[A disastrous period in my professional life]. The Premadsa Presidency is important to this narrative because, it reveals certain facets of our polity that have not changed despite the emergence of the ‘Borderless flat world’ of Tom Freidman.
The Manager of Air Lanka in London at that time had to contend with a complex hierarchy. In addition to the conventional reporting structure, the Manager was in constant contact with the Chairman in Colombo. “Venerable Walpola Rahula thero is traveling to London. His Excellency wants him well looked after. The Thero is feeble. Arrange for an Ambulift”. Done. Venerable Rahula in London tells a press reporter that Minster Gamini Dissanayake gave him a plot of land near Parliament for his ‘Awasaya’. The Manager receives another call from the Chairman. “Please don’t upgrade Ven.Rahula to business class. We don’t want complications.”
In addition to the Chairman, there was the Secretary to the Treasury who was also a member of the Board of Directors of the Air Line. His movements in and out of London surpassed the dexterity and speed of a ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’. He was consigliere peerless. It was the time that Air Lanka had a General Sales Agent in Manchester. The General Sales Agency was held by a gentleman whose allegiance to the powers that be was beyond challenge. He had been guardian to the offspring of the helmsman at the wheel of the ‘Janasaviya’ ship. This fortunate General Sales Agent was arbitrarily deducting 8% commission instead of the 3% he was allowed. The Chief Financial Officer [bless his soul. He is still around advising Sri Lankan Airlines] was insisting that the manager in UK should put matters right and recover the dues. The manager was not between the devil and the deep blue sea. The Manager was in the Devils own submarine in the deep blue sea!
The scarlet pimpernel on one of his lightning visits to London solved the problem much in the fashion suggested by some who disagree with the Government’s decision to co-sponsor the Geneva resolution. Kicking the can down the lane.
“Let him be. We will settle the matter later” ruled the financial wizard who if my memory serves me right was transiting London either on his way in or out of Washington on a Concord flight.
The “later solution never materialized’. A year later the New Chairman General Atygalle under a new President asked me what happened in the presence of the wizard. I looked hopefully in his direction. I received the pensive stare of a Sri Krishna composing the first stanza of the Bhagwad Gita. Even to this day I recall fondly the adjective the old soldier later used on me with a four letter qualifying expletive.
Then there were the London based Travel Trade Oracles of Sri Lankan origin. They all had access to power corridors, bedrooms and closets including baskets of dirty linen in Colombo. The President’s son in law and a member of the Board of Directors had links with some of them. It did not matter if the Oracles demanded concessions that made no commercial sense. The Manager was expected to be flexible and accommodative to their profound suggestions which were after all for the greater good of the country and the national interest. Their credentials too were beyond challenge. These Travel Trade patriots were experts in locating exotic pups in the British canine pets industry. They were reliable logistics handlers of dog food, motor spares and cut flowers. They also doubled up as caretakers of the St Johns wood residency of the patron of arts who sold the Mulkirigala Rock painting to a London Art Dealer.
The then Manager of Air Lanka in London had his hands full dealing with two giants in the airline business totally focused on the ethnic traffic between London and Colombo and London and South India. Their rivalry and collusion if recorded in an epic deserves the title Eleanor of Aquitaine and Lion in Taprobane.
Now to get back to the present cause célèbre. The position of Sales Manager in London was created during the Premadasa Presidency. That position was not advertised either internally or externally. The son in law of a renowned speech and drama expert who was working in Air Lanka was appointed to the position. Whom she taught speech and drama is important but non-essential to this narrative.
A traffic offence committed by the sales manager in London was highlighted during the parliamentary debate on the purchase of the Airbuss A 340 aircraft. It resulted in the recall not of the sales manager who spent a night in the cooler but the Country Manager. His cool demeanor towards the incident provoked presidential wrath and he was immediately ordered out of London. His experience has a strange parallel to the plight of High Commissioner Nonis who was virtually relived of his assignment in the Court of St.James for his culpability in exposing his chubby cheeks to be vandalized by another courtier of the court.
London is a microcosm of the macabre morals of our land like no other. The next Sales Manager in London was selected after the vacancy was advertised internally within the airline.
I believe the last Sales Manager was a permanent resident in the UK of Sri Lankan ancestry who traces his ancestry to a Great jurist who adorned our Supreme Court in British times.
Air Lines usually recruit competent nationals of the host country as sales Mangers and sales executives. No airline can survive purely on ethnic traffic. In modern aviation Air Lines must offer its products not between its home base and a specific point but as from any place in the globe to any other place in the globe. That is modern aviation. This is a point that should be known to the new CEO of SriLankan Airlines who has had the exposure to a truly remarkable world airline. [I don’t know him and I have little patience with his opinionated brother. But I think he is adequate for the job in comparison to many of his predecessors.]
In London the capital of our Grand Mother country the conventional wisdom is to appoint a Sri Lankan to sell SriLankan Airlines. It is possible that the British are not as obliging with work visas as before under EU dictates. I may be wrong. With apologies to the author of the Mahavamsa, I end this narrative written for the vicarious joy and the emotions of the curious.