By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
It was not my intention to write a second part to what I wrote on 6 February 2015. However considering some of the comments from the readership and by some others, I felt some clarification would be in order or rather was necessary. The general perception is that Air Lanka / SriLankan Airlines was an expensive toy of the rulers of the day and a few of the elite – all at the expense of the tax payer. Even though there is some truth in it, it is indeed not the whole truth. Contrary to general perception, the national carrier has played a pivotal role both in helping the nation’s economy and welfare of its people by bringing the world to Sri Lanka and taking Sri Lanka to the world.
I list below a few areas in which the national carrier has played a crucial part in both the nation’s economy and its people’s welfare.
Sri Lanka recorded its highest tourist arrivals in the winter season of 1982/83. A downward trend in arrival figures commenced after July 1983. As tourist arrivals plunged, legacy carriers calling in Colombo such as British Airways, Swiss Air, KLM and UTA gradually dropped Sri Lanka from their route networks. Charter carriers began calling in Sri Lanka. However their operations were seasonal due to the closure of the East coast for tourists. Only a few carriers such as Gulf Air, Saudia, Kuwait Airways and Emirates operated to Colombo. None of them operated daily flights. Names such as Qatar Airways, Etihad, Oman Air and Cathay were non-existent. Singapore Airlines and Thai operated from the East. Even though tourist arrivals had declined, the tourism did not fold up. It chugged along with its ups and downs. During this period, Air Lanka notwithstanding its faults and short comings played a crucial role in keeping the tourism industry alive. Any travel agent who was around in the 1980s and 1990s will vouch for it. By early 1990s, the national carrier was carrying around 55% of tourist arrivals to the country. Those dependent on the tourism industry were not only the employees of Hotels and Travel Agencies but also employees and families of ancillary services such as Tourist Guides, Taxi Divers, Gem, Batik, Handicraft industries, Restaurants to name a few. In 1990, Sri Lanka hosted the Skal World Congress which is a large gathering of senior travel trade personal from all over the world and an ideal opportunity to show case our destination. In addition, Sri Lanka has hosted the smaller Asian Skal Congress on three other occasions. The national carrier came forward to carry attending delegates and their spouses providing rebated travel thus contributing towards the promotion of tourism. In 2012 the national carrier flew in 40% of the 1 mil tourists who visited Sri Lanka (source SLTDA).
Employment and Other Traffic
Several Middle Eastern embassies in Colombo openly favoured their own carriers and discriminated against the national carrier by issuing visas only for applications supported with tickets issued by their own national carriers. Nevertheless, as much as 50% of our labour traffic departing to the Middle East for employment was carried by the national carrier despite the many hurdles faced. If not for the national carrier, the numbers proceeding to Middle East would have been substantially less and slower.
Medical Patients, Pilgrims and Traders
Until private airlines started up in India, Indian Airlines had one flight a day from Chennai to Colombo whereas the national carrier operated flights to Chennai, Trivandrum, Trichy and Mumbai. Delhi was started in 1992. Large numbers of medical Patients, Traders and Buddhist, Christian and Hindu Pilgrims used the national carrier for travel between Sri Lanka and India. In addition, the national carrier granted free travel to all citizens receiving financial grants from the President’s Fund for medical treatment abroad in the event required treatment was not available locally.
Development of Human Resources
Employees of the national carrier especially in the fields of Pilots, Cabin Crew, Engineering and Ground Handling after receiving being trained secured employment in the Middle East which improved their economic status as well as increased foreign exchange remittances to Sri Lanka. During my stint as Air Lanka’s Manager in Oman, I recollect over 250 ex Air Lanka ground staff working for Oman Aviation at the Muscat airport. I believe the situation was similar in many Middle Eastern airports.
Promotion of Sports and National Events
For a long time, the national carrier assisted national sports teams by way of rebated travel when proceeding for international events at a time when few foreign carriers were calling in Colombo and that too with limited frequencies. SAARC Games in 1991 was held in Colombo. The national carrier carried all the contingents from participating countries, officials and journalists attending the event on free and rebated tickets.
One of the reasons for the setting up of the FTZ in Katunayake was the proximity to the Airport and the ability for finished goods requiring to be air freighted to be shipped out speedily. The national carrier provided much needed support for exporters in the carriage of air freight. Vegetables, Fruits, Cut Flowers and Ornamental Fish were products requiring to be air freighted in which the national carrier played an important role. During a certain period, the national carrier operated two Cargo Freighters to several South Indian destinations and Maldives which boosted national exports.
Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. It resulted in the exodus of foreign labour to nearby countries. Over 30,000 Sri Lanka refugees crossed over from Kuwait to Jordan and were scattered in Refugee Camps all over Jordan. The national carrier was entrusted the task of providing air transportation. To carry out such a task besides our normal operations already hampered due to the need to divert our flights away from the war zone was a difficult task. However, the President of the day was not a man who took no for an answer and the national carrier got down to the task. The national carrier used its own aircraft whenever ground time could be squeeze out for quick turnaround flights to Amman and back with intermediate stops in Dubai. In addition, the IOM provided Sri Lanka with three aircraft (Anatov or Ilyushin – I forget) with a seating capacity of nearly 500 per aircraft. Russian Pilots and Cabin Crew came with the aircraft. The national carrier was tasked with the administration of these flights. Empty flights would take off from Colombo, land in Dubai for fuelling and uplift of meals, proceed to Amman, load up refugees and return to Dubai for refuelling and uplift of meals before returning to Colombo. Most of the Russian crew did not speak a word of English. We therefore dispatched 6 – 8 volunteers from our staff in each flight to communicate with the passengers. They were not paid. Only duty leave was granted. I was responsible for the catering aspect of all mercy flights. I recollect suggesting we provide Biriyani meals for the passengers and being immediately shot down by the Company Medical Officer who pointed out that having endured near starvation conditions in refugee camps, they should be not be given any heavy meals but light snacks and fruits. I bowed to the superior knowledge of the Company Medical Officer on dietary requirements and placed orders for Sandwiches and Fruits from Dubai ! We then discovered that some Russian crew members were pilfering the fruits and distributing only sandwiches. Two of my colleagues and I decided to make spot checks by shuttling between Dubai and Colombo travelling up in empty flights and returning in flights carrying refugees thus containing the problem. That was an instance when everybody in the airline rose to the occasion to do their bit. We received no thanks for our efforts. However we had the satisfaction of having done our bit in assisting our compatriots in distress. I have no doubt that the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives and children of those we brought home would forever be thankful to the national carrier.
These are but a few instances which come to my mind of the yeomen service performed by the national carrier to the nation and its people. I have no doubt that some of my ex colleagues would be able to elaborate further. When making business decisions, it should not be done with emotion. Nevertheless, when hurling brick bats, it is also necessary to give bouquets where necessary. Regardless of the abuse by successive governments over which we had no control and regular brick bats, the writer is proud to have been associated with the national carrier. I have little doubt that many of my former colleagues share my sentiments.
The writer worked for Air Lanka / SriLankan Airlines for 16 years