SriLankan Airlines: Facing challenges and coming out strong

Thursday, 22 July 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Since its inception four decades ago SriLankan Airlines has been continuously at the forefront providing a dependable and solid air travel service


By a Special Correspondent

Uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has thrust the global aviation industry into genuine chaos as a result of closed borders and strict border controls since the early days of the crisis which has seen planes flying with just a handful of passengers, desolate terminal halls, stationary baggage carousels and featureless departure boards – eerie images that spells out the aviation industry’s deep state of woe that has brought the industry to its knees eight times faster than the year that followed the 9/11 attacks, which was previously considered as the most severe crisis in the history of the aviation industry.

In a highly-connected world, a national airline is another way that a country defines itself along with its flag and national anthem, symbols that play a significant role in nation-building, national identity and economic development.

When Air Ceylon, the former State-owned flag carrier airline established in 1947 collapsed in early 1978 and ceased all operations on 31 August 1979, it was replaced by Air Lanka on 10 December 1979 as the nation’s new national carrier. Following a partial acquisition by Emirates in 1998, Air Lanka was re-branded and introduced with its current livery to become what is known today as SriLankan – although the Government of Sri Lanka ended the Emirates partnership and acquired all the shares of the airline from Emirates in 2008. It, however, retained its re-branded name and logo.

Since its inception four decades ago SriLankan Airlines has been continuously at the forefront providing a dependable and solid air travel service in a highly-connected world with increased travel options and easy accessibility for passengers to reach their destinations more quickly despite market changes and challenging times during the country’s darkest days from the 30-year civil war that ended in 2009, the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 – all despite the facing the challenge of losing almost half her fleet of aircraft in the terror attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport in July 2001.


A silver lining

While many airlines ceased operations to Colombo from time to time in the face of turbulent times, throughout much of its history SriLankan Airlines has played a critical role by providing a solid air travel network for the country to depend on by focusing on the third largest foreign exchange earner in the country – the tourism industry – which benefits immensely from the airline’s global marketing drive that promotes the wonders of Sri Lanka’s natural beauty, rich culture and dynamic hospitality to millions of international leisure and business travellers from across the globe.


COVID-19: A turning point

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the elimination of virtually all demand for air travel sent shock waves throughout the airline industry that has faced significant disruptions – To say things are bad for the airline industry right now is an understatement.

As the first cases of a new pneumonia-like viral respiratory disease belonging to the same family of viruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), became known in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province in December 2019 and subsequent discovery of a similar infection near Milan, in the northern region of Lombardy in February 2021 the World Health Organization, after careful assessment, took steps to declare the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) a public health emergency of international concern on 11 March 2020; although airlines observed a drop in the demand for travel that first appeared to affect China and other regional South-East countries, the risk of a global pandemic was passed off “minuscule” – no one saw the impending storm until it was too late.

As the virus continued to spread, World Health Organization issued guidelines that included strict border closures and restrictions on large-scale movement to limit the spread and reduce the risk of transmission of the virus between countries – the effects of these border controls have affected global travel, tourism and aviation industry that accounts for a staggering 800 commercial airlines, 10.4% or $ 9.2 trillion of global GDP and 334 million jobs – a figure that represented one in 10 workers on the planet in 2020.


SriLankan Airlines to the rescue

Hit by the collapse in demand in the backdrop of the widespread COVID-19 pandemic that decimated passenger numbers SriLankan Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, engaged their grounded and parked fleet in special “Mercy Flights” operated under World Health Organization (WHO) approved special COVID-19 airline operational procedures – that included the use of deep cleaning, fogging and de-misting procedures to disinfect aircraft and Personal Protective Equipment for cockpit, cabin and ground handling staff – to repatriate more than 15,000 Sri Lankans, many of them students and domestic workers, who were left stranded overseas due to travel restrictions and global lockdowns.

At the same time, the national carrier took steps to transform its operations to fulfil a delicately choreographed and an unprecedented ‘Mission of the Century’ – airlifting millions of doses of highly unstable frozen vaccines which are essential for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 under special conditions from the point of manufacture via supercooled warehouses to hospital or clinics – and all points in between.

As a facilitator of international trade, the airline also went on to transform its operations to include extensive cargo routes to support Sri Lanka’s export industries and ship emergency supplies – conducting over 350 dedicated cargo operations that carried over 10.3 million kilograms of cargo to over 20 destinations across Europe, the Far East, the Middle East and India. This includes 14 cargo charter operations from China to Johannesburg that ferried emergency supplies including over 50 million units of masks and PPE – the airline went so far as to convert one of its passenger aircraft into a dedicated freighter, adding 170 cubic metres or 45 metric tons of cargo capacity as part of ongoing efforts to meet the present demand for air cargo.


Viruses and aviation don’t mix

The combination of trip cancellations, the change in passenger behaviour, country-specific travel restrictions on international flights triggered a series of events that resulted in a dramatic drop in demand for airline services– in July 2020 the International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasted that the global airline industry was set to lose $ 84.3 billion, however, a subsequent economic performance report released in November the same year by IATA predicted that the industry was set to end 2020 with a loss of $ 118 billion in comparison to 2019. 

The report went on to forecast that a full recovery of the industry could not be expected until 2024, a year later than a previous projection, partly because the virus continues to rage with new varients and a rising number of cases in many countries; by far this has been the sharpest decline in the history of aviation and has brought about a risk of bankruptcy for many airlines including SriLankan Airlines.

While the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been severe and air travel still showing no signs of recovery, the continuing effects will be evident for years to come, and as the industry braces for change and prepare for an eventual recovery airlines the world over have received state aid – and has afforded an excellent opportunity to the Government of Sri Lanka to rethink and assess the value of the flag carrier as an asset in this period of crisis and a source of national pride that entitles it to benefit from a bailout despite its losses.


SriLankan Airlines transporting COVID vaccines


Tourist arrivals amidst COVID pandemic


Air cargo operations at Katunayake airport