Colombo Telegraph

The Passing Of An Aviation Legend & Lessons To Be Leant 

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

Rajeewa Jayaweera

Below is a release by Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman & Chief Executive Emirates Airline & Group who is also an uncle of the Ruler of Dubai and Vice president / Prime Minister of UAE, on the passing away of Sir Maurice Flanagan, KBE on 07 May.

Quote
“You may have heard that Sir Maurice Flanagan, KBE, passed away on Thursday, 7 May. The world lost a legend in aviation and a thought leader who worked tirelessly to represent the voice of airlines at every international forum. He was a vocal champion for the benefits of competition and innovation.

For Dubai and the Emirates Group, he was a key player and contributor to the city’s and the airline’s success. As a senior-most leader, his single-minded passion and commitment helped put Dnata and Emirates on the global map. In 1985, he led a 10-man team to launch Emirates with US$10 million. He helped steer the Group’s business divisions through many challenging periods. When he retired in 2013 as our Executive Vice Chairman, it seemed like everyone in Dubai wanted to honour him.

For me and many of us in the Group, he was a friend, a mentor and a guiding light. He was generous with his time and with his counsel. Often, you would see him engaged in animated conversation with colleagues in corridors across the Group. He took an interest in everything around him. He also loved his cricket, and spearheaded the sport within the Group and indeed in the country.

I have said this before: When you see some good in me, you see what Maurice taught me. My bad habits are my own.

He died as he had lived – surrounded by his family and loved ones. My deepest condolences to his wife Audrey, his son Julian, and his daughters Siobhan and Claire.

His enduring legacy is part of the Group’s heartbeat and its very fabric. We will always remember him with deep affection and immense respect.
Our best tribute to Maurice will be to carry on with his vision – of being number one in everything we do.”
Unquote

Born in 1928 in Lancashire, England, after obtaining a BA in History and French from the Liverpool University, Flanagan joined BOAC in 1953 as a Management Trainee spending the next 25 years holding different positions. He was based in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Peru, Iran and India in addition to stints in UK. In 1978, he was seconded by British Airways to head Dnata, the organization appointed by the government of Dubai to run its travel and airport interests.

In 1985, the Dubai government employed Flanagan as Director / General Manager to launch Emirates Airlines. Heading a team of 10 and armed with a grant of USD 10 million startup capital from the state of Dubai, the airline commenced operations on 25 October 1985 with two leased aircraft. Today, Emirates boasts of a fleet of 233 aircraft with a further 279 aircraft in their order books, serving 144 destinations in 6 continents and carried 49.3 mil passengers in the financial year 2014/15.
In 1990, Flanagan was appointed Group MD of the Emirates Group. He became Vice Chairman and Group President in July 2003, and was appointed Executive Vice Chairman in 2006, a position he held until he retired in 2013. Flanagan leaves behind a legacy of having brought about one of the greatest success stories if not the greatest success story of modern airlines. The glowing tribute paid by Chairman Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum in stating “when you see some good in me, you see what Maurice taught me. My bad habits are my own” indeed befits a man of Flanagan’s calibre.

May he attain Nibbana.

The beginnings of our own carrier Air Lanka which took to the skies on 01 September 1979 are similar to those of Emirates. It too started with 2 leased aircraft. Its management consisted of 40 plus Singaporeans from Singapore Airlines and a start-up capital exceeding USD 10 million. However, the similarities ended there. Whereas the 10 member founding team of Emirates lasted for decades (besides Flanagan, current CEO Tim Clark was another of them), the Singaporeans were sent home within two years. Contrary to our belief that the Middle East of the past was ruled by feudal families with men having a panache for wine and women and little thought for sound corporate governance, Flanagan and his team were given the required freedom to professionally manage the airline sans interference by the rulers, which was the main reason that Emirates was able to repay to the state of Dubai the start-up capital of USD 10 million received at its inception, at the end of its first year of operations. Both Emirates and Flanagan had the good fortune of not being saddled with successive Boards of Directors appointed on the basis of personal and political loyalties, and cronyism with little knowledge on corporate governance and aviation and interference from politicians. It must be underlined that Air Lanka after four years of operations was dependant on Treasury handouts for its survival despite the fact that terrorism did not raise its head in Sri Lanka until mid-1983. In fact the country had opened its economy resulting in increased commercial activity and was enjoying a boom in tourist arrivals unparalleled in the country’s history until summer 1983.

Unlike the oil rich states / kingdoms of Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Qatar, Dubai has no oil and is totally dependent on commerce, banking and services. Emirates have not depended on handouts from the state.

Every government in Sri Lanka kicks off its term of office with promises of good governance and to turn loss making state enterprises into profitability. They eventually leave office leaving state enterprises with greater financial losses and larger numbers in manpower than when they took over.

The present government was sworn in on 09 January 2015. A new Chairman and several Directors were appointed on 24 January. A few more Directors have been appointed subsequently. Their brief is to make the airline profitable in three years. That said, the winds of change expected of an organization aiming for profitability does not seem forthcoming. What is visible is a laid back attitude, lethargy and a lack of a sense of urgency

At a very basic level, the company’s website does not display the names of two of the present eight Directors, Mr Rajan Brito and Mr Nirj Deva. Google information still indicates Kapila Chandrasena as CEO of the airline despite his resignation on 09 March 2015. Emirates is indicated as the Parent Organization. At best of times, Emirates was a minority shareholder with a management mandate for 10 years and were never the Parent company. Updating such information is generally handled between the Company Secretary and Departmental Manager responsible for IT.

At a higher level, the airline has been without a Chief Commercial Officer since November 2014 and a full time CEO since 09 March 2015. It is questionable if the former CEO did any constructive work from 09 January till 09 March with his own future in the company in doubt. Means should have been found to obtain the resignation of a politically appointed CEO without permitting him to linger for two months after a change of government, as in the case of Sri Lanka Telecom etc. The key position of CCO should have been advertised much earlier. Both positions have been advertised on 13 May.

The Weliamuna Board of Inquiry Report was completed on 30 March 2015. Besides wrong doings of the former Chairman and the Director/CEO, it also made strictures of the conduct of several key staff members which included irregular recruitments, release of staff for election work, to name a few, with recommendations for internal investigations. Despite the lapse of six weeks since the completion of the report, no interdictions have taken place, no investigations have commenced nor disciplinary action instituted. The investigation of charges in the report would either confirm findings in Weliamuna Report enabling disciplinary action or exonerate those accused of wrong doings allowing the company and staff concerned to move on. Meanwhile as reported in a leading daily recently, “staff who volunteered to come forward and provide details of misdeeds of the former Management are facing a hostile work environment”.

The lack of urgency in filling key vacancies and delay in investigating some of the Weliamuna Report findings are examples of the lethargy prevailing within the organization.

It is rumoured that some senior staff in the airline have resorted to ‘playing politics’ and have begun to undermine the authority of the Board of Directors. The present Minister for Aviation who is the third since 09 January was brought into the cabinet to facilitate the passing of the 19th Amendment. His post Parliamentary Elections future not being with the current administration, it would be normal for the current objectives of the Minister and those of the Board of Directors to be diametrically opposite rather than complimentary. Some overseas Managers are rumoured to be canvassing through cabinet ministers for extensions of their assignments abroad. If correct, staff ‘playing politics’ is the fallout of the failure on the part of the Board of Directors to assert their authority and stamp out the culture of political patronage which has risen to dizzy heights since the departure of Emirates Management. The Weliamuna Report is an ideal opportunity for commencement of this exercise so desperately needed for the transformation from a politically driven airline to a commercially driven airline. This is best understood by those who have a strong background in corporate governance rather than those with good business acumen.

After 35 long years, several governments, over a dozen Boards of Directors and the loss of billions of tax payer’s money, it is time the major shareholder GoSL took cognizance of reality in that it lacks the political will, the commitment and the competence to professionally manage an airline. The American Philanthropist and author Rick Warren said “we are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it”. That is exactly what the Ruler of Dubai did in 1985 when he handed over the airline project to 10 aviation experts headed by Maurice Flanagan. The resulting success story of Emirates needs no elaboration. GoSL would do well to emulate the policy followed by the Ruler of Dubai in 1985, hand over the airline to a set of professionals and take a nonintrusive back seat while playing a supportive role. With a bit of luck, GoSL might even find a modern day Maurice Flanagan to do the job !

*The writer worked for SriLankan Airlines and Qatar Airways for over 20 years

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