24 December 2007

Airline CEO sacked for not finding 35 seats for President

The London Daily Telegraph reports that the British CEO of Sri Lankan Airlines has had his work and residence permits revoked by the government because of his refusal to find 35 seats (18 business, 17 economy) on a London - Columbo flight for the country's president. This means he has to leave the country within seven days.

The Sri Lanka Guardian website elaborates:

The Sri Lankan Government, which owns 51 per cent of the airline, said today that it was cancelling a work permit for Peter Hill, who has been the carrier's chief executive, based in Colombo, for eight years.

It cited the airline's refusal to clear 35 seats for President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his entourage on a flight from London via the Maldives to Colombo on December 13.

Mr Rajapaksa, accompanied by his wife and several aides, had been on a private visit to Britain to watch his son, Yoshitha, passing out from the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

The President eventually returned to Colombo on December 14 on a charter flight with Mihin Air, a budget carrier that was set up this year and is wholly owned by the Sri Lankan Government.

Opponents of Mr Rajapaksa say that the incident illustrates the increasingly autocratic and arbitrary behaviour of the President, who won an election in 2005 promising a harder line against the rebel Tamil Tigers.

Since then, he has made himself head of the ruling party and Minister of Finance and of Defence, as well as Commander-in-Chief, and allocated a ministry to each of his three brothers.

Together, the Rajapaksa brothers now control more than 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's budget, according to local economists.

“Put it this way: it's getting pretty hard to say no to the President,” said one Western diplomat.

The Government says that it requested the seats on the Sri Lankan Airlines flight in advance and that the airline promised that they would be made available.

“We have recommended the cancellation of a work permit issued to Peter Hill,” said Dhammika Perera, the chairman of the Government's Board of Investment.

“They said they have enough seats ... and finally when the day comes, they said there were no seats for the delegation.”

The airline, however, says that it turned down the request because its flight was fully booked, mostly by tourists heading for their Christmas holidays in Sri Lanka or The Maldives.

Sri Lankan Airlines runs 12 flights a week between London and Colombo.

Chandana De Silva, a spokesman for the airline, said: “They made a request for 35 seats, presumably at short notice, but the flight was full unfortunately.

“We have no clear-cut policy on this. If the Government as the majority shareholder had officially directed Sri Lankan Airlines, it would have been different. For something like this, the CEO would have to make the call. The buck stops with him.”

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