ECONOMYNEXT - Friction at Sri Lanka’s national carrier SriLankan Airlines burst into the open on Tuesday when its directors and chief executive were summoned for grilling by President Maithripala Sirisena, who noticed open hostility and finger pointing.
The cabinet of ministers led by the President questioned Chairman Ajith Dias and Chief Executive Officer Suren Ratwatte about their failure to fully implement the recommendations of the “Weliamuna Board of Investigation” (BOI), which investigated corruption and malpractice under the former regime.
Four directors contradicted Ratwatte, brother of Charitha Ratwatte Sr., senior advisor to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Suren Ratwatte, a former A380 pilot from Emirates, is said to be at loggerheads with the SriLankan board. On Tuesday, he was criticized by ministers for his recent media statement contradicting a government spokesman of recruiting staff without the knowledge of minister Kabir Hashim who is in charge of the airline.
"It is clear that the board is badly divided," President Maithripala Sirisena was quoted as saying by a ministerial source at the meeting. "The President felt that the allegations against the SriLankan board are true."
The source said the President assured them that he will take a "decisive decision" about the board very soon. Last week, ministers asked the President to sack the entire board, but Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe bought more time by promising he will reconstitute the management team within weeks.
"What the cabinet found out today is that the CEO and the chairman have been taking arbitrary decisions that were not in the interest of the airline," the ministerial source said. He said the president insisted that the recommendations of the Weliamuna report should be implemented immediately.
The Dias-led board had tried to make light of the allegations contained in the Weliamuna report and brushed some aside as "personal matters."
Dias had even crossed words last year with reporters who asked why he had not taken action against an airhostess who drew a salary and flying allowances while working for four years as a personal aide to former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eldest son Namal.
In April last year, the Weliamuna report said SriLankan Airlines was a paradise for sex predators, with the top management demanding sexual favours from cabin crew and young employees, leading to a breakdown of discipline at virtually all levels.
The Weliamuna BOI found that Pradeepa Kakulawala, the head of Human Resources, allowed sexual perverts a free run. The current management has not taken any action against Kakulawala, ministers had been told.
The BOI said complaints of victims had also fallen on deaf ears.
The BOI also recommended criminal prosecutions of then-chairman Nishantha Wickramasinghe and then-CEO Kapila Chandrasena for allegedly defrauding the state in addition to abuse of power and soliciting sexual favours.
It is alleged that Dias failed to take any action against Chandrasena who is a close relative of his business partner Aravinda de Silva.
The BOI reported that SriLankan Airlines made losses of more than 110 billion rupees since the Rajapaksa administration ended a management deal with Emirates, not counting losses in the financial year to March 2015.
The Weliamuna report found that the Rajapaksa administration made management changes to buy brand-new Airbus aircraft for $2.3 billion despite the availability of cheaper alternatives. It had found evidence that Chandrasena falsified documents to lease luxury Benz and Prado vehicles for then-chairman Wickramasinghe.
The BOI found he was "unsuitable for the job", was paid 1.5 million rupees on top of other perks and drawn salaries simultaneously from his positions as chief executive of Mobitel, a state-run mobile firm, and Mihin Lanka, another loss-making state airline started by President Rajapaksa.
There were also procurement deals where conflict of interest were seen. The panel recommended a criminal investigation into sales of duty free goods and wine, which it has identified as a blatantly corrupt deal. (COLOMBO, June 20, 2017)