ECONOMYNEXT – Nishantha Wickramasinghe, brother-in-law of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa had caused millions of rupees in losses and reputational damage to SriLankan Airlines when he was chairman by changing the departure time of a Paris flight, falsely claiming a VIP delegation was on board, a commission of inquiry was told.
Dammika Senanayake and Nishantha Handapangoda, two Operations Control Managers, testified at a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into irregularities at the national carrier from 2006 to 2018.
Witnesses said that Wickramasinghe had given orders to reverse a decision to delay a Paris flight in 2014 which eventually cost the airline 90,261 US dollars (11.7 million rupees at the then exchange rate) in air tickets and complimentary services for 161 passengers.
Wickramasinghe had claimed there was a VIP delegation aboard but no such delegation could be found, witnesses said.
On 25 January 2014, when Senanayake was in charge of the day shift ending at 7.30pm at the Airline Operations Control Centre in Colombo, a wide-bodied aircraft was grounded by engineers to conduct tests for an extended time, he said.
He said that UL-553 to Frankfurt and UL-563 to Paris were set to depart early next morning.
The Frankfurt flight had an unusually high number of passengers taking connecting flights to other airports in countries such as the US and Canada.
He said if the Frankfurt flight was delayed, it would cost the airline more to purchase tickets and accommodate 84 passengers who would miss their connecting flights.
Therefore, the Paris flight was delayed by 5 hours and 15 minutes, he said.
Later on the day, a narrow-bodied Airbus A320 had to be grounded due to a defect, delaying a flight to Male in the Maldives and its return, Senanayake said.
“The Male flight was bringing passengers connecting to the Paris flight," he said. "So, it justified delaying the Paris flight.
“We were also waiting for the arrival of the previous Paris flight, which we could service and return to Paris.”
Senanayake said he got a call from Wickramasinghe, instructing him to change Paris flight back to the original departure time.
“The Chairman never calls us and gives directions. There is chain of command. If he wants to contact us, he has to call the Chief Executive or the Chief Commercial Officer,” Senanayake said.
He said he called Chief Commercial Officer Druvi Perera.
“He knew what I wanted to do. He knew about the delays, and the commercial costs,” Senanayake said.
He said Perera had instructed not to take any more action until discussions were held with Wickramasinghe and chief executive Kapila Chandrasena.
In the evening, Wickramasinghe had called asking why the Paris flight was not rescheduled to take off at original time, Senanayake said.
Druvi Perera then called to say the chairman’s instructions should be followed.
Wickramasinghe had said that an important delegation was going to Paris, which required the flight take off on time, Senanayake testified.
But he could not find any VIPs on the passenger list.
Senior Deputy Solicitor General Niel Unamboowe asked Senanayake if he questioned Wickramasinghe on who the VIPs were.
“The way he was telling me to change the flight, if I asked who the VIPs were, I thought he would get angry,” Senanayake said.
Senanayake said at the end of his shift he had briefed Handapangoda who took over the night shift and e-mailed the senior management committee, made up of all department heads, the chairman, chief executive and chief commercial officer, of the decision to delay the flight to Frankfurt, instead of Paris due to the chairman’s instructions.
The e-mail informed that due to the decision, passengers coming on the delayed Male flight to take the connecting flight to Paris had to be issued new tickets.
Handapangoda said that there were no business class passengers on the Paris flight. He said as a practice, the SriLankan Airport Manager informs the Operations Control Manager on duty if VIPs are on a flight. No such information was given.
Handapangoda said that after his shift started, the airline managed to get 26 passengers in Male who would miss the Paris flight to be flown to Colombo on a China Eastern Airlines flight, at a 4,296 US dollar cost to SriLankan.
These 26 passengers arrived on time to depart on the Paris flight, while the remaining 44 passengers arrived in Colombo on the delayed SriLankan Male flight, he said.
These passengers were sent on the delayed Frankfurt flight due to space availability, and later connected to Paris at the expense of SriLankan, he said.
Another 84 passengers on the Frankfurt flight had to be connected to their destinations due to the delay. SriLankan spent 84,475 US dollars on connecting flights from Frankfurt to Paris and other destinations for the 128 aggrieved passengers, he said.
Additional meals, and other costs for the delayed passengers had to be borne by SriLankan as well, bringing the total cost of the flight rescheduling to 90,261 US dollars, Handapangoda said.
He said that no chairman has ever interfered with flight operations in his 28-year history at the airline, except for Wickramasinghe, who did it on two occasions in January 2014 disregarding the specialized skills of Operations Control Managers and their teams.
Senanayake and Handapangoda said that to their knowledge, no inquiry was held in the airline on the flight rescheduling.
Handapangoda said that the senior management team may have evaluated the rescheduling, but he was not called to give information.
He said that he does not know whether an internal audit was held, since the auditors receive information from other departments.
Handapangoda said that SriLankan’s reputation suffered among locals and foreigners from the chairman’s actions, due to the Frankfurt delay and rescheduling the Paris flight twice.
The commission heard the previous week that Wickramasinghe had diverted another flight on 22 January 2014 to save one and a half hours of travel time for himself, his wife and a politician. (COLOMBO, 15 August, 2018)