ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lankan airlines may have shot itself in the foot by terminating a pilot who had refused what he called an irregular breathalyser test administered by a security officer with a seriously blemished record.
Captain Sujith Jayasekera, a former head of the influential Pilots’ Guild, and a teetotaller maintained that he would be stressed and unable to fly if he was forced to take an unlawful test. The airline later insisted that he refused a test and thereby was deemed to be under the influence of liquor.
However, the airline compromised its own integrity and security of passengers by allowing a pilot deemed to be under the influence of alcohol to operate a flight to Bangkok on August 27 carrying 144 passengers, according to several ministers who grilled the Sri Lankan board on Tuesday.
A government minister who followed the case said the airline’s action in finding Jayasekera guilty amounted to the national carrier admitting that it had violated international civil aviation laws and risked the lives of passengers and crew.
“If he refused a test then you assume he is drunk, but you still allowed him to operate a commercial flight to Bangkok,” the minister said. “If the pilot is guilty, then the airline is even more guilty.”
Government spokesman and Health minister Rajitha Senaratne said the airline’s board had ignored calls by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to resolve the issue by re-instating Captain Jayasekera.
“This is why we say that the Sri Lankan board is a government within a government,” the minister said.
The minister said Jayasekera’s case which was discussed at Tuesday’s meeting at the Presidential Secretariat, was among many other irregularities that were raised but with no clear cut answers from the beleaguered board which is said to be split between two factions.
President Sirisena has indicated he will shortly replace the entire board after a call for its sacking two weeks ago during a heated cabinet meeting.
President Sirisena has said he was embarrassed over the Jayasekera issue as he had given an assurance to the Pilots’ Guild that the matter would be amicably resolved.
Test by questionable security officer
Jayasekera, who is also a non-smoker, stood his ground when confronted by security staff for an alcohol test purely on a matter of principle to expose the shortcomings in the airline’s system, he said in letters to authorities. Jayasekere had been a pilot of the state airline for 27 years. Before that, he been a pilot for the SriLankan Air Force. He has 22,000 hours of incident accident free flying, according to his submissions.
After the August 27 fiasco, the airline has changed its procedures to bring them in line with international regulations.
He alleged that the security officer who administered the test had a criminal record and accused of a duty free fraud at the airport. The J. C. Weliamuna report, which investigated corruption at Sri Lankan airlines, has already called for the suspension of this security officer Rohan Manilal Upasena and called for an investigation into his alleged corruption under the previous regime too.
Soon after Captain Jayasekera was suspended in August, the Pilots’ Guild launched a trade union action to protest alleged irregularities in administering the breathalyser test.
The Airline Pilots’ Guild insisted that Jayasekera was willing to be tested only if it was administered by qualified staff, including medical personnel, in line with internationally civil aviation standards which are incorporated into Sri Lanka civil aviation law.
The airline had begun random tests after a flight from Frankfurt to Colombo was held up the previous month when its captain, a Sri Lankan national, was found to be
drunk and caused millions of rupees in losses to the already loss-making carrier.
In the case of Jayasekera, the guild said management did not follow due process.
There was no comment from Sri Lankan airlines despite several questions posed to them before preparing this report.
Soon after the August incident, Sri Lankan in a statement said: "As per procedure, Capt. Jayasekera was therefore taken off duties and suspended pending an investigation." However, he was suspended only after he had flown an Airbus A330 to Bangkok.
The Pilots’ Guild points to serious misrepresentations in the internal inquiry. The inquiring officer identified as Dunuwille had omitted crucial sections of the operative legal provisions and had gone on to find Jayasekera guilty on a wrong assumption of the law.
The civil aviation law 2.7 specifies that there should be a written request which would allow the pilot to offer his consent for the test, but no such written request had been made to Jayasekera. In his final report, Dunuwille reproduces the provisions of the law omitting the key word “written” to suggest that a verbal request is adequate.
The case has also shown the effectiveness of the country’s new Right to Information law. Jayasekera had been able to obtain copies of board decisions as well as the erroneous confidential report of Dunuwille thanks to a RTI request.
Now that the internal investigation report is in the public domain, Guild members say the airline could face higher insurance premiums on its aircraft. (COLOMBO, June 24, 2017)