Saving the national carrier - a rejoinder


Guwan Seeya has responded to my request to name a single active or retired pilot in Sri Lanka with a professional track record comparable to that of Carsten Sphor, Chairman, and CEO of Lufthansa. He has provided details of an edited example of a CV of an unnamed brother pilot. (‘Saving the national carrier’ - The Island of January 10, 2018).

Details of the edited CV provided contain decades of experience as a pilot, flight instructor, pilot trainer, aircraft accident investigator and work related to civil aviation authority. It is unclear if the Master of Technology qualification from Swinburne University in Australia was a degree course or one of those courses lasting a few weeks. Airline managerial experience is limited to Flight Operations, when pilots divide their time between a part-time desk job and minimum flying time to maintain their flying license.

The owner of the CV does not possess any experience in Finance, Human Resources (divisional and not limited to tech crew), Sales, Marketing, Engineering or any other discipline within or outside the airline industry.

On the other hand, Sphor, having qualified and worked for several years as a pilot, gave up flying and completed a management training programme at Deutsche Aerospace AG. After that, he spent over 20 years in Central Recruitment, European Regional Partnerships, Alliances and Cooperations, Hub Management, Cabin Crew and HR Affairs and CEO of Lufthansa Cargo, before his promotion as Chairman of the Executive Board and CEO of Lufthansa AG.

I dare say, Sphor would not have been promoted to the top twin positions, had he not given up his flying career and received training, exposure and experience in other areas in the airline business.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Under Sphor’s Chairmanship and direction as CEO, Lufthansa turned in a net profit of Euro 1.78 billion (USD 1.90 billion) in 2016, up 4.6% from the previous year.

There are several ‘baked at home’ pilots with credentials similar to the edited example. One of them left for Singapore after being dismissed for failing to account for thousands of dollars in travel advances taken from Air Lanka. Another joined Singapore Airlines, failed a subsequent half yearly base check, returned home and rejoined SriLankan Airlines after the former Chairman, his school mate, waived the type rating costs applicable to others. Such types generally make disastrous corporate leaders.

Another ‘baked at home’ pilot operated an Air Ceylon flight to Singapore and joined another airline leaving the aircraft and passengers stranded, till another captain was flown from Colombo to operate the flight. Such are the credentials of the worthy, the ‘pilot lobby’, according to him, supposedly managed to ‘have appointed’ to head the national carrier in 1979.

Guwan Seeya points an accusing finger stating "The Administration could have groomed someone for the future. Whether they want to get involved is another story". Pilot remuneration at SriLankan Airlines range between USD 7,500 (beginners) and USD 12,000 (four bar captains) besides around USD 1,000 for meal / flying allowances, per month. At today’s exchange rate it would amount to approximately Rs 1.3 million to Rs 2 million per month, which is what our pilots earn. It does not include the hourly rate paid to pilots between taking off and landing. Would any pilot exchange his flying jacket to a full-time desk job in management earning around Rs 250,000 per month, and embark on a career as done by Sphor?

Ticket prices must essentially cover the cost of the end product. During the first seven years, the national carrier, with a well-trained cabin crew offered a product which could not be sustained with the airline’s cut rate ticket prices. It was compounded by some of the worst management practices. Many such practices as the infamous commission payments for two Tristar L1011-500 aircraft leased to British Airways can be found in the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Affairs of Air Lanka Ltd., published in June 1987.

The commissioners recommended criminal proceedings against the Chairman, Board and several senior managers. Since the Board included two top bureaucrats of the day, the government decided to bury the commission report and did not prosecute.

It is not my intention to enter a protracted debate on the subject. Hence, I conclude this exchange with the above comments.


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