By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The new year 2017 has been heralded in at the national carrier SriLanakn Airlines with the President of the Airline Pilots’ Guild of Sri Lanka firing off its latest salvo by way of a letter addressed to the Chairman. The Pilot community have taken umbrage over the national carrier’s CEO making known of his desire to resume pilot duties, in addition to his duties as the airline’s CEO.
The communication, copied to the subject Minister, Board members, Head of Flight Operations and the CEO himself highlights several issues relevant to the subject. Key among the issues are; current CEO is not a qualified Airbus A320 pilot, should the airline already under severe financial strain bear the cost of revalidating the CEO’s pilots’ license to operate A320 aircraft and the advisability of a CEO with no previous experience as a CEO and resulting stress levels taking on additional responsibilities of a flight captain thus further increasing stress levels.
The Pilots’ Guild have been made to believe, the Board of Directors have given their consent for the CEO to proceed. However, it is understood such consent had been granted under different circumstances. A majority of board members had voted to extend the CEO’s probation period in mid-2016. Considering the possibility of not being confirmed to his post and eventual termination, it had been agreed he may be permitted to renew his pilots’ license, possibly to facilitate employment elsewhere in such an eventuality. However, since the majority board decision was overturned by Royal command and the CEO confirmed to his post without even a Performance Appraisal, the board’s concurrence in mid-2016 is no longer valid. There are several high profile former and current corporate leaders in the present board. It would be valid to question if these board members would consider a CEO found lacking in performance, to a junior position on a part time basis in companies they own or hold directorships.
It would be useful to provide readers with some background information related to what is require by the CEO to return to duties in the Flight Deck (also known as Cock Pit!). The CEO last held a license to operate Airbus A380 aircraft, issued by UAE civil aviation authorities. It is not valid in Sri Lanka as no A380 aircraft are registered in this country. Therefore, an aircraft type rating is required from Sri Lankan civil aviation authorities for aircraft validation. Once it is obtained, he will have to follow a complete base aircraft course for A320 aircraft, with a subsequent multi rating course for mixed fleet flying (in this case, A330 aircraft) if desired. The duration of such an exercise would be around one month on an accelerated or two months on standard schedule basis. The cost would amount to over Rs 3 million.
Besides the several important factors raised by the Pilots’ Guild, a key factor in this issue is the ability of a person who is a CEO of an international airline with a global reach to devote the necessary time, energy and effort for his regular duties whilst devoting part of his time for flying duties which entail stringent conditions such as specific number of hours of rest prior to and after a flight. Besides, it would be a total violation of his terms of employment which forbids any other form of employment paid or unpaid, a standard clause in all employment letters. In such a back ground, how would the company discipline any other employee for taking up secondary employment when its own CEO is in breach of the regulation? The allocation of valuable and costly simulator slots for training a pilot who would perform the minimum number of flights required to maintain license validity is of serious concern besides the ethics of drawing various allowances during flights besides pay and perks of a CEO.
A few months ago, there was much hype over several of the newer Airbus A330-300 aircraft being leased out to PIA (Pakistan International Airlines). Based on this development, it is reliably learnt, the board had approved the extension of lease agreements of three older A330-200 aircraft. However, it now transpires only one aircraft has been leased to PIA on a wet lease and that too only for a few months. Payments are known to be irregular and PIA is now supposedly negotiating with Pegasus Airlines, a private Turkish carrier, for leasing out their excess aircraft at a much lower rate in view of the virtual collapse of the tourism industry in Turkey. Meanwhile, lease agreements of three older A330-200 aircraft have been extended. Should the deal with PIA fall through, the national carrier will be saddled with three unwanted A330 aircraft and lease charges of around USD 1 million a month.
Some explosive situations involving the CEO (of both SriLankan Airlines and former Mihin Lanka) have taken place in the last fourteen months. The Airline Pilots’ Guild wrote to the Chairman on April 26, 2016 quoting three instances and stating “the antagonistic and threatening language used by the CEO, and his demonstrated lack of competency in his capacity, the ALPGSL membership has unanimously decided to place on record our loss of confidence in the current CEO”. The CEO has admitted to the use of the ‘F’ word during a meeting with the Pilots’ Guild. He also admitted “I am not a numbers man”. On August 23, 2016, nineteen senior staff of Mihin Lanka have written to the Chairman stating “it is with much sadness that we state, that we have lost faith and confidence in the unprofessional manner of the Chief Executive Officer in handling the entire amalgamation process to date”.
Good pilots do not necessarily make good CEOs. It is dependent on the managerial experience leadership qualities such persons possess, besides a pilots’ license backed by thousands of hours of flying time. Mr. Carsten Spohr, Chairman and CEO of Lufthansa is a graduate of Industrial Engineering from Karlsruhe University in Germany and obtained his commercial pilot’s license from the Lufthansa Flight Training School in Bremen and Phoenix (Arizona) which he still maintains. He then went on to complete a management training program at Deutsche Aerospace AG in Munich. After spending a few years as a commercial pilot, Sphor joined Lufthansa in 1994 as Head of Central Recruitment. He spent the next twenty years in different management positions in Recruitment, European Regional Partnerships, Alliances & Cooperations, Hub Management, Cabin Crew & HR Affairs and as CEO of Lufthansa Cargo AG. He was appointed Chairman of the Executive Board and CEO of Deutsche Lufthansa AG on May 01, 2014. An admirable curriculum vitae if there ever was one with a pilot’s license to boot.
It would not be unnatural to wonder the sudden urge of the CEO to take up flying duties. He is close to the company’s retirement age. For reasons best known to the board of directors, this CEO, unlike all former CEOs has been employed on permeant rather than on contract basis. Even one time CEO Manoj Gunewardena, a permanent employee for over thirty years was issued a three-year contract when appointed CEO. He reverted to his substantive grade once his contract expired. Only time will tell if the current CEO’s desire to revalidate his pilots’ license is a form of insurance, if bailing out becomes inevitable.
To conclude, the Presidential Commission appointed to investigate into affairs of Air Lanka in 1987 censured the then Chairman / Managing Director (in today’s terms, then MD would be today’s CEO) for claiming lack of time as an excuse for failure to deal with critical company matters. The Commissioners provided a list containing number of hours the Chairman/MD had spent piloting aircraft around the world, over several months. Sri Lanka is notorious for its inability to learn from past mistakes.
It would appear the national carrier is preparing to descend to its pre-1987 altitude. Would it be a prelude to a crash landing?