Search

 

Cablegate: Sri Lanka Resumes Management of National Carrier And

VZCZCXRO3224
RR RUEHDE RUEHLMC
DE RUEHLM #0346/01 0950654
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 040654Z APR 08
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7964
INFO RUCPDOC/USDOC WASHDC
RUEHAD/AMEMBASSY ABU DHABI 0458
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 1942
RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA 0819
RUEHDO/AMEMBASSY DOHA 0236
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 7812
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 5995
RUEHGP/AMEMBASSY SINGAPORE 5725
RUEHBK/AMEMBASSY BANGKOK 3390
RUEHKP/AMCONSUL KARACHI 2336
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI 8419
RUEHDE/AMCONSUL DUBAI 0140
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA 2697
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHDC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 COLOMBO 000346

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR SCA/INS AND EEB/TRA/OTP
STATE PASS USTR, DOL/ILAB FOR TINA MCCARTER
NEW DELHI, SINGAPORE AND BANGKOK FOR FAA AND TSA

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: EAIR EINV CE
SUBJECT: SRI LANKA RESUMES MANAGEMENT OF NATIONAL CARRIER AND
APPOINTS FINANCE SECRETARY AS BOARD CHAIRMAN

REF: A. COLOMBO 47 B. 07 COLOMBO 394

1. (SBU) Summary and comment: The government of Sri Lanka resumed
management control of the national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines on
April 1. The government has appointed Treasury Secretary (and
mastermind of the Sri Lankan economy) P.B. Jayasundera to be
chairman of the Sri Lankan Board of Directors. Jayasundera replaces
local tycoon Harry Jayawardena, who had clashed with Emirates
management. The appointment is intended to generate confidence that
the airline will be managed in a financially prudent manner, and
also to improve relations with Emirates, which still owns 44% of Sri
Lankan shares and three of the seven seats on the board. The
Secretary of Ports and Aviation assured us that the airline will

SIPDIS
have "complete commercial flexibility without government
interference" but President Rajapaksa's statement that the national
carrier "must be used in a more dynamic and enterprising manner to
further the goals of the country" suggests that the government won't
be entirely hands-off.
End summary and comment.

SRI LANKA RESUMES CONTROL OF NATIONAL CARRIER,
RESHUFFLES BOARD OF DIRECTORS
--------------------------------------------- -

2. (SBU) National carrier Sri Lankan Airlines reverted to Sri Lankan
government management control on April 1, with the termination of a
1998-2008 management contract held by Emirates Airlines (ref A).
The government of Sri Lanka owns 51% of the airline's shares,
Emirates owns 44%, and airline employees own the remaining 5% of
shares. On March 28, President Rajapaksa replaced three of the four
Sri Lankans on the airline's seven-member board of directors,
appointing Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera as the new chairman.
(Note: Jayasundera was treasury secretary and chairman of the Public
Enterprise Reform Commission in 1998 when the government partially
privatized the unprofitable airline with the share sale and
management contract to Emirates. The deal was regarded at the time
as having been corrupt -- there was speculation that then-President
Kumaratunga profited personally from steering the deal toward
Emirates.) A senior minister told Ambassador that the Jayasundera
appointment was temporary until a suitable private sector figure
could be selected. He expected Jayasundera to mend relations with
Emirates, after former chairman and local conglomerate tycoon Harry
Jayawardena had had a personality clash with Emirates President Tim
Clark.

3. (SBU) The other new Sri Lankan board members are Lalith De Silva,
a former telecom CEO whom the government had engaged as a consultant
to work on the transition from Emirates; and Sunil Wijesinghe, a
respected businessman and management consultant, currently chairman
of Dankotuwa Porcelain Ltd., and brother-in-law of Central Bank
Governor Nivard Cabraal. Remaining on the board are Nishantha
Wickremasinghe, appointed in 2006, brother-in-law of President
Rajapaksa; and three senior Emirates managers based in Dubai.

NO CEO; STAFF JUMPING SHIP
--------------------------

4. (SBU) Sri Lankan lacks a CEO however. When Emirates announced
its pull-out, the airline elevated its communications director,
Chandana de Silva, to temporarily fill the CEO slot. However de
Silva recently left the position to join Emirates. The government
is advertising the opening for the CEO position. Thirty of the
airline's 200-plus pilots have also left. A group of senior pilots
we spoke to emphasized that pilots were leaving simply because other
airlines were offering them more money, not because they lacked
confidence in Sri Lankan's business prospects.

GOVERNMENT SAYS IT WON'T INTERFERE IN MANAGEMENT...
--------------------------------------------- ------

COLOMBO 00000346 002 OF 003

5. (SBU) Secretary of Ports and Aviation Tilak Collure told EconOffs
and visiting Federal Aviation Administration representative from
Embassy New Delhi that, back under national management, the airline
will have "complete commercial flexibility without government
interference." The pilots we spoke to likewise said they did not
expect the new management to enact any big changes in the short
term. Collure said it was possible the government would at some
point allocate funds to the airline to support its operations.
(Note: Sri Lankan as a whole is currently barely profitable, having
made $7.8 million in 2007 with revenue from ground handling and
ancillary operations covering losses in flight operations.) The
pilots pointed out that the airline needs additional planes in order
to expand routes, but lacks the cash to purchase any.

6. (SBU) Collure and others we talked to also downplayed widespread
speculation that Sri Lankan Airlines would come to the rescue of
ailing national budget airline Mihin Air (ref B). Collure told us
the government's position was that "Mihin will have to stand on its
own," but that "if there are ways to cooperate, so be it" According
to news reports, the airline has been losing a few million dollars
each month as a result of using expensive wet-leased planes and
inefficient overall operations. Mihin's head of flight operations
told Econoff that "60-70% of media reporting" is incorrect, but did
not contend that the airline is making money. He admitted that a
merger had been discussed but rejected by the former Sri Lankan
board, but might again be considered by the new board.

... BUT PRESIDENT SAYS AIRLINE MUST
"FURTHER THE GOALS OF THE COUTNRY"
-----------------------------------

7. (SBU) Collure's assertions of Sri Lankan's independence
notwithstanding, President Rajapaksa stated in a paid advertisement
in local newspapers that the national carrier "must be used in a
more dynamic and enterprising manner to further the goals of the
country." Sri Lankan's new marketing campaign reflects the kind of
inward-looking approach common to other state-owned enterprises
under the Rajapaksa government. The airline is serving Sri Lankan
national food to celebrate the new domestic management control. It
is seeking to drum up business by offering discount fares to Sri
Lankans traveling abroad to visit relatives and Sri Lankans abroad
returning to visit relatives. The government also announced that it
will
use Sri Lankan Airlines for all official travel abroad of both
working level government officials and government VIPs.

8. (SBU) The government has also indicated that the separation
between Sri Lankan and Mihin won't be as complete as Collure stated.
Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga told the government-run
Daily News that there would be not a merger but a "partnership"
between the airlines. The Daily News reported that "a corporate
plan was being drawn out between the two airlines with the proposal
of drawing out the operational synergies and how both could be
maintained in tandem with each other as a partnership in terms of
Human Resources and Finances."

COMMENT: NEW CHAIRMAN IS A MIXED BLESSING;
PRESIDENT BRACING FOR FAILURE?
------------------------------------------

9. (SBU) P.B. Jayasundera is the fiscal mastermind keeping Sri
Lanka's sprawling and wasteful government from going broke. With
his fiscal management skills, he will likely be more capable than
most other political appointees would be at holding down Sri Lankan
Airlines' expenses. On the other hand, he shares President
Rajapaksa's vision of a paternalistic government whose state
enterprises advance populist, but costly, economic policies. So he
will not likely resist give-aways like the reduced fares for Sri

COLOMBO 00000346 003 OF 003


Lankans flying the national carrier. In this sense he is far from
the professional manager the airline needs. He has other
liabilities as well. He is extremely busy running the Treasury and
Finance Ministry, so will not be able to devote full-time attention
to the airline. His proximity to various deals alleged to have been
corrupt also raises concerns.

10. (SBU) The Rajapaksa government is trying to put a positive
nationalist face on the airline's reversion to Sri Lankan
management. Indeed, critics contend that the original deal with
Emirates had been too generous and that Emirates had exploited more
than enhanced Sri Lankan Airlines. It is true that Emirates did not
invest in Sri Lankan the way it has in its own brand, but it
definitely managed the airline more effectively than the government
had. Government management of state enterprises has long been poor
in Sri Lanka, so the country appears likely to lose from Emirates'
departure. President Rajapaksa himself sounded pessimistic when he
told Sri Lankan Airlines employees April 3: "If the company fails in
today's fiercely competitive airline business of the world and the
region in particular, especially at a time there is a global
economic recession, you ought to blame yourselves for it."
BLAKE

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
World Headlines

 

Werewolf: Gordon Campbell On North Korea, Neo-Nazism, And Milo

With a bit of luck the planet won’t be devastated by nuclear war in the next few days. US President Donald Trump will have begun to fixate on some other way to gratify his self-esteem – maybe by invading Venezuela or starting a war with Iran. More>>

Victory Declared: New Stabilisation Funding From NZ As Mosul Is Retaken

New Zealand has congratulated the Iraqi government on the successful liberation of Mosul from ISIS after a long and hard-fought campaign. More>>

Gordon Campbell: On The Current US Moves Against North Korea

If Martians visited early last week, they’d probably be scratching their heads as to why North Korea was being treated as a potential trigger for global conflict... More>>

ALSO:

Gordon Campbell: On The Lessons From Corbyn’s Campaign

Leaving partisan politics aside – and ignoring Jeremy Corbyn’s sensational election campaign for a moment – it has to be said that Britain is now really up shit creek... More>>

ALSO:

Another US Court: Fourth Circuit Rules Muslim Ban Discriminatory

ACLU: Step by step, point by point, the court laid out what has been clear from the start: The president promised to ban Muslims from the United States, and his executive orders are an attempt to do just that. More>>

ALSO:

 
 
 
 
 
 
  • Pacific.Scoop
  • Cafe Pacific
  • PMC