(TVLW) – The British head of Sri Lankan Airlines faces dismissal after the national carrier refused to bump passengers off a flight from London to make way for the President of Sri Lanka.
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.”
Mr De Silva said that he had seen the Board of Investment chief’s announcement on television, but the airline had yet to receive any official communication about Mr Hill’s work permit.
He also suggested that the move could be linked to the negotiations with Emirates, the Dubai national carrier, which owns 43.6 per cent of Sri Lankan Airlines and has managed it under contract since 1998.
Mr Hill used to work for Emirates and was appointed by the company to head Sri Lankan Airlines.
Emirates’ management contract expires at the end of March, but talks on renewing it, scheduled to resume next month, have so far been inconclusive.
Local media say that the Government wants a bigger management role and believes that the existing contract is tilted in favour of Emirates financially.
But Mr Hill has said that the negotiations have been dragging on for too long.
“The negotiations between the Government and Emirates have been going on for 18 months. I would have liked to have seen them resolved by now,” he told reporters in New Delhi last month.
Mr Hill has also blamed a recent fall in profits on the escalation in Sri Lanka’s separatist conflict over the past two years, which has put off many tourists.
Sri Lankan government officials declined to comment further.