SriLankan Airlines chairman Ashok Pathirage speaks to Asia Family Traveller about how the airline has risen to the covid-19 challenge and its plans for the future, as Sri Lanka gets ready to reopen its borders.
SriLankan will be adding new destinations including Incheon and Sydney later this year.
SriLankan Airlines boss Ashok Pathirage has revealed that the flag carrier is ready to play a "pivotal role" in the economic recovery of the country when borders reopen.
The government-owned airline was forced to suspend scheduled passenger services in early April as Sri Lanka battened down its hatches to battle covid-19.
The country now says its health and safety situation is back under control and the national carrier is ready to take-off again.
“Despite the challenges we face, we’re looking forward to the reopening,” says Ashok Pathirage, chairman of SriLankan Airlines. “We’ve been working around the clock to meet health and safety guidelines and the challenging requirements of the ‘new normal’.”
Despite the suspension of flights, the carrier continued to provide relief flights to repatriate stranded Sri Lankans and other nationals. It also provided much-needed cargo operations to support export industries and to transport essential equipment to deal with the crisis.
SriLankan Airlines chairman Ashok Pathirage believes the carrier had a moral obligation to support its citizens.
Pathrage describes the flag carrier as having had a moral and ethical obligation to support the nation and its citizens during the crisis.
Tourism is a major sector of Sri Lanka’s economy and was forced to take a huge hit as the pandemic swept around the globe. However, the country’s tourism industry is no stranger to shocks, having demonstrated resilient growth even through the darkest days of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
By the end of July, the airline had carried 14.6 million kgs of cargo to more than 20 destinations across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The airline also converted one of its A330 passenger aircraft into a dedicated freighter as part of the ongoing efforts to meet the global demand for cargo.
Pathirage assumed control of the airline in late 2019 with a view to transforming it into a more profitable and progressive enterprise. The dynamic businessman is founder of Sri Lankan conglomerate, Softlogic Group, and, along with his his role as chairman of the national carrier, he oversees more than 50 companies with interests in retail, telecommunications, healthcare, finance, IT, leisure and autos.
Sri Lanka's stunning coastline (photo courtesy Unsplash/Sasha Set).
As Sri Lanka emerges from the pandemic, the airline’s role is set to transition from supporting relief measures to rebuilding confidence in the country as a safe tourist destination.
To embrace the 'new normal', SriLankan has implemented new health and safety protocols on board its aircraft and across its terminal facilities in line with directives issued by both local and global aviation and health and safety organisations. Measures include social distancing, wearing of face masks and other personal protective equipment for both crew and passengers, routine disinfection of aircraft and terminals, health screening, contact tracing, passenger health declarations and covid-19 testing.
Cleaning regimes now involve the disinfection of all contact surfaces inside the aircraft, including windows, seat belts, tray tables, armrests, handsets, inflight entertainment displays and lavatories, using WHO-certified products. Amenities such as headsets, headrest covers, pillow covers and blankets are replaced between flights with fresh, disinfected items.
All air and ground crew are regularly tested and extra precautions are being taken with food handling and preparation.
“We’ve taken every reasonable precaution to minimise the risk of transmission of disease,” said Pathirage. “Each aircraft undergoes cleaning and disinfection before and after each flight. We have even removed all reading material from seat-back pockets and introduced online pre-ordering of in-flight duty free items to minimise physical contact.”
Every plane is fitted with industry standard, hospital-grade High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters which are certified to remove 99.97% of all viruses from circulating air in the passenger cabin.
“We’re happy to say that our passengers can travel with us and enjoy our signature Sri Lankan hospitality without fear,” said Pathirage, who admitted he’ll be taking to the air with SriLankan, both for business and personal reasons, as soon as services recommence.
“We will simply return to doing what we do best, welcoming the world with open arms and treating people to our warm hospitality," says Pathirage.
Expansion goals for the rest of the year include adding destinations including Sydney, Incheon and Chengdu to its network in the coming months. However, the airline’s primary focus will be reconnecting with and consolidating its position in key markets such as India, China and the United Kingdom.
“Globally, the industry expects to face losses exceeding US$84 billion dollars in 2020,” says Pathirage. “However, uncertainty is the norm in this business and we are adapting to the present uncertainty. Personally, I believe that every problem is also an opportunity and this crisis is an opportunity for SriLankan Airlines to shine in its role as the national carrier and to be a catalyst for driving the country’s economy as we emerge from the pandemic.”