Rajeewa Jayaweera, in Island, 21 April 2020, where the title is “Mangala’s ‘pussvedilla’ “
In a recent article, Former Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has ctiticised the SriLankan management “for putting the lives of crew members of SriLankan Airlines (UL) at risk by ordering them to bring Chinese nationals from London to Shanghai.” In a twitter message, Samaraweera has also asked, “Were all the passengers tested/quarantined before leaving London?” He further tweeted: “The question is why China did not choose one of their own airlines to carry their citizens home. They have over a dozen international carriers.”
Responding to a Twitter message from the Chinese Embassy in Colombo he said, “Did not your passengers transfer from UL504 to UL 866 after transiting in Colombo for two hours? If your government hired on a ‘commercial basis’ one of your own long-haul flights directly to Shanghai from London there would have been no ‘transfer risks.”
Following are some factual details of the operation.
UL officials in Shanghai had received a request from a Chinese travel agent to operate two flights from London to Shanghai to transport Chinese nationals. The charges quoted by UL being acceptable, the operation was planned to operate a charter flight between London and Colombo connecting with UL866 for the Colombo/Shanghai sector.
Accordingly, UL503 operated from Colombo to London on April 11. The return flight, carrying 219 Chinese nationals, was operated, on April 12, after the crew received minimum rest.
The Chinese passengers, after a two-hour transit in Colombo departed on board UL866 bound to Shanghai. This was the weekly cargo flight operated to bring Chinese goods to Sri Lanka; and they are usually operated by two Tech Crew members and one cabin crew. In this instance, an additional cabin crew member was used due to a passenger supplement of 219.
A second operation was scheduled to take place on April 18 and 19.
Whereas there had been no compulsion on crew members, they operated flights based on rosters prepared by their respective departments. Compliments are due to them for doing their duty without a fuss.
UL, after covering all costs, is believed to have earned a decent profit from this operation. The national carrier recently carried a full plane load of Australians stranded in Bangladesh between Dhaka and Melbourne.
There are some glaring holes in Samaraweera’s arguments.
As much as our politicians like to consider the national carrier as their inheritance (boodale) when in power, UL is a commercial organisation. Its core business is the carriage of passengers, cargo and mail. It is not the remit of any airline to question a customer on the reasons why they opt to use the airline. The trick used to decline any undesirable business is never to say no but to simply quote a fare way above the acceptable level. The customer will automatically look elsewhere.
Samaraweera’s question “why China did not choose one of their own airlines to carry their citizens home” indicates an acute lack of business sense.
Having contacted airport authorities, this writer was able to ascertain that current regulations do not require passengers transiting in Colombo for less than six hours to produce testing/quarantine documents. To have done so as suggested by Samaraweera would have amounted to discrimination against Chinese nationals. Politicians by nature are fair weather friends and clueless about how to treat all weather friends such as China.
No one protested when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, on behalf of the people of Sri Lanka, recently, accepted a soft loan of USD 500 million from China. How is the Chinese money good, but assisting them in their hour of need is bad? Secondly, why did we accept tons of medical equipment gifted by China, which may have been contaminated? How do we know if boxes in the weekly UL cargo flights are safe? It may be argued, boxes can be fumigated. Passengers in transit for two hours can be sanitized along with the crew and the aircraft.
Samaraweera has objected to Chinese passengers being transported via Colombo.
It would be fair to wonder what would have happened if UL had transported a similar number of Americans via Colombo? Rushing to the airport and welcoming them, each with a kiss, is a distinct possibility. Not many moons go, as the country’s Foreign Minister, Samaraweera did such a thing; he rushed to the airport when former US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal, a State Department bureaucrat, visited Sri Lanka.