New horizons for SriLankan | Daily News

New horizons for SriLankan

Covid-19 almost sounded the death knell of the travel and tourism industry last year, with countries closing their borders en masse. Indeed, the travel industry took a nosedive, leaving millions of people out of their jobs. Many countries such as Sri Lanka and Maldives that depend heavily on tourism Dollars saw their economies plummet to the nadir.

Needless to say, the airline industry took the biggest hit, with no one flying around. Many airlines went into the red and retrenched thousands of employees. In 2019, global passenger numbers exceeded 4.5 billion - more than half the world’s population but this decreased to less than 1.8 billion in 2020, a drop of more than 60 per cent.

Closer home, the already struggling SriLankan Airlines took a huge hit as most of its destination countries shut their borders. But to give credit where it is due, the airline swiftly adapted to this new normal through a variety of measures. These included repatriation and mercy missions for Sri Lankans stranded abroad, cargo-only flights (through the quick conversion of passenger planes) and many cost-saving measures. The airline was able to tide over this turbulent period without essentially resorting to retrenchment.

Many countries have now realised that they cannot keep their borders shut forever in fear of a virus. Moreover, with vaccination rates rising across the world, most people are shielded from the virus. Hence, many countries including Sri Lanka have already cautiously re-opened their borders especially to vaccinated travellers. This is a step in the right direction – closed borders mean a loss of income. Besides, we yearn to travel, connect and explore, a fundamental trait of what it means to be human.

SriLankan Airlines, despite its woes, has risen to the occasion, exploiting new market opportunities. A few months ago, even amidst a raging pandemic, it launched flights to Nairobi, Kenya, its first destination on the African mainland (It already flies to Seychelles). This flight has proved popular among both passengers and cargo handlers. The airline now plans to operate two flights a week on this sector.

This week the airline also began flights to Kathmandu in Nepal, the first direct connection between the two cities in over 40 years. It is also likely to be the first international airline to operate flights to the new Gautama Buddha International Airport in Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal as well as to the new international airport in Kushinagar, an important Buddhism pilgrimage site in UP, India. Incidentally, SriLankan will recommence flights this month to nine destinations in India, our biggest tourism market. SriLankan recently also started flights to Moscow, an important tourism and student market. It should also study the possibility of commencing regional flights from Jaffna and Batticaloa. In the meantime, Sri Lanka’s tourism prospects look brighter as new entrants such as Air France have announced flights to Colombo.

But the airline faces the challenge of cutting down its losses – the COPE recently revealed that it was losing as much as Rs.84 million per day. The management must come up with viable plans to eradicate this loss and drive the airline back to black. It is also time to literally take stock of its fleet, as some are due to be retired.

The Yahapalana Government made a big blunder by cancelling an order for four Airbus A350 aircraft, for which the country had to pay nearly US$ 100 million to Airbus Industrie. Once its finances are in order, the airline should re-evaluate its order book and opt for new aircraft, led by the A350, which will be an ideal fit for long-range destinations such as London, Melbourne and Tokyo. Any such technical committee should also study the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, but it does make sense to be an all-Airbus operator, in terms of training, experience and maintenance.

SriLankan should also investigate the possibility of inducting the narrowbody Airbus A321LR and XLR (Long Range and EXtra Long Range) to its fleet, given their ability to fly non-stop for up to 8,700 Km (4,700 NM). This should open up the tantalizing possibility of adding many new non-stop destinations using much less fuel than a widebody.

The airline should also tap into the cargo market. The demand for airfreight has increased as a result of the surge in e-commerce as well as the cargo needs arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. With shipping lines and lanes clogged up, many cargo handlers are increasingly looking to air cargo to transport everything from vaccines to ventilators. The airline already has a converted freighter, but it should consider the possibility of getting a dedicated freighter or two, even from the second hand or leasing market.

Sri Lanka’s domestic market is still developing, but we feel that SriLankan should enter it in a bigger way rather than having a codeshare with a seaplane operator. Once tourism picks up, there will be a bigger demand for domestic flights. SriLankan should consider this market carefully and enter it with at least a turbo-prop such as the 70-seat ATR 72-600. The sky’s the limit for the airline if it can put its house in order.

Add new comment