SriLankan Airlines ex-Chairman used head-of-state privileges to divert aircraft for personal gain
ECONOMYNEXT – Brother-in-law of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Nishantha Wickremesinghe had used priviledges reserved for the head-of-state to divert an aircraft for personal use, inconveniencing passengers and causing the airline financial and reputational damage, a commission of inquiry heard.
Operations Control Manager Gopitha Ranasinghe testified at a Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating irregularities at the state-owned national carrier from 2006 to 2018.
Former SriLankan Chairman Nishantha Wickramasinghe, his wife and then Deputy Minister of Finance Sarath Amunugama, who had been in Singapore in January 2014, had returned to Sri Lanka on a flight diverted to save them one and a half hours of travel time, Ranasinghe said.
He said that this had cost the airline money and possible reputational damage.
Ranasinghe said that while he was on duty on 22 January 2014, SriLankan Airlines flight UL 306 which had departed Colombo for Singapore had returned due to a suspected fuel leak.
He said he was aware Wickramasinghe was in Singapore and had taken steps to inform the chairman of the situation.
The engineers who had requested a 2-hour period to examine the UL 306 aircraft had found no fault with it and a decision was taken to use the original aircraft, Ranasinghe said.
He said that by then, the Chief Marketing Officer had instructed him to call Wickramasinghe to inform him of the options available for the Singapore flight.
“I called the chairman and informed him of the options. I said the most convenient is to send the original flight to Singapore,” Ranasinghe said.
“And there is an option to divert the Kuala Lumpur flight to Singapore.”
Ranasinghe said that Wickramasinghe had told him to divert UL319, then flying to Colombo from Kuala Lumpur, towards Singapore.
Ranasinghe said that he had told Wickramasinghe the difference between the arrival of UL319 and UL306 in Singapore was just one and a half hours.
“The chairman said to go ahead with the diversion,” Ranasinghe said.
He said to his knowledge, normally, the senior management team or the chief executive takes decisions on flight operations, and a chairman had never interfered previously.
Ranasinghe said that Wickramasinghe had not wanted to wait longer, as a government delegation in Singapore wanted to return to Colombo, and the chairman’s words were taken seriously and implemented.
“So, was this a big delegation? VVIPs?” Senior Deputy Solicitor General Niel Unamboowe questioned.
Ranasinghe said that when he later checked, the delegation manifest had included only Amunugama. Wickramasinghe and his wife had also accompanied the minister.
Ranasinghe said that in his understanding, a government delegation is more than one person. He said that no flights have ever been diverted for a government delegation. SriLankan usually diverts flights for the President, he said.
Only other reasons for diverting flights are safety and security emergencies, airport closures and air traffic congestion, he said.
Ranasinghe said that there was no document to say that Amunugama had requested the diversion.
Ranasinghe said that due to the diversion, the airline had had to pay the air crew and cabin crew more for the extra duty hours. Additional payments were also made for the extra fuel used by UL 319, ground handling charges, landing charges and overflight charges, he said.
The airline may have had to bear the cost of UL319 passengers who missed connecting flights due to the diversion, but records would have to be examined, he said.
He was asked whether the Chairman of the airline should have curtailed such unnecessary spending when it was running at a loss.
“That is not my position to say,” he said.
However, he said that the airline’s reputation would have suffered naturally, as the 124 passengers of UL319 had likely formed a poor opinion of the airline.
He said that the airline had not conducted an inquiry into the incident or the additional costs arising from the diversion.
Ranasinghe said that no such flight diversions had occurred since then, but that there was another instance where flights were rescheduled in a similar manner. (COLOMBO, 8 August, 2018)