Vipula Gunatilleka, CEO, SriLankan Airlines, says carriers cannot be reactive, even in a crisis situation

SriLankan Airlines is integral to its home country’s economy. Beyond its 7,000 employees, the carrier’s connectivity helps to support a host of tourism jobs. That support has become more important than ever following the recent bombings. The airline must help to rebuild the critical tourism sector while staying true to a detailed business plan.

How will SriLankan Airlines help to rebuild the country’s tourism efforts following the tragic bombings?

In the immediate aftermath, we worked very closely with the authorities to ensure that all our passengers were safe and secure. So, for example, our ticketing and customer information centers were open 24 hours to make sure that we were giving our customers the best possible support—rearranging flights, securing accommodation, and so forth.

There was also close cooperation with the Sri Lankan air force to ensure the airspace was secure.

Longer term, we will sit down with the tourism board and work out the best strategy. As it stands, the situation is still unfolding so it is very hard to say exactly what we will do right now. But the point is that we will be ready for whatever decisions we make. You want to put your airline in a position where it can adapt and thrive no matter what the circumstances.

The bombings in Sri Lanka are an extreme example of that but, even so, we stand ready to help our passengers, our people, and our country.

How important is the airline to the country’s economic growth?

SriLankan Airlines is a very important part of the national economy. Our contribution to GDP is in the region of $2 billion and we support many jobs, directly and indirectly.

Obviously, a major part of our role is encouraging tourism to Sri Lanka. This is not only about promoting the airline but also about promoting the country. The right branding is essential because you are offering a package and there has to be alignment in the value proposition.

The business plan anticipates some passenger growth but that is now in doubt because of the terrorism attacks. So, making sure different aspects of our business are able to take up the slack will be vital

What opportunities do you see in the cargo, maintenance, repair and overhaul, and ground handling markets?

We need to diversify our revenue streams and developing these sides of the SriLankan business will be important. Cargo is performing well, and we see a real need for services in maintenance, repair and overhaul, and ground handling.Most of our revenue comes from the passenger side and we have to be more robust.

The fact is, even though the passenger demand for air transport is growing strongly in Asia-Pacific, we are not seeing that in Sri Lanka. The business plan anticipates some growth but that is now in doubt because of the terrorism attacks. So, making sure different aspects of our business are able to take up the slack will be vital.

Tell us about the airline’s overall business plan?

There is a comprehensive business plan in place that looks to both cut costs and improve revenue.

I think that the plan is realistic rather than optimistic but, of course, after recent events in our country we will have to review the plan to make sure that it is still achievable. It is always a good idea to have a plan B in any case. With a plan, you know what to do and can control the situation rather than have the situation control you.

Most of all, we need to make sure we have a good cash flow. If you have that, you always have options.

1998 - SriLankan Airlines can be traced back to 1947 and the now defunct Air Ceylon, but current operations are most closely linked to the launch of Air Lanka in 1979. After a partial acquisition by Emirates in 1998, the flag carrier of Sri Lanka was rebranded with the name it bears today.

Are you happy with your home infrastructure? Can Colombo really become a hub?

Part of our business plan is to make Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo a hub. There is the potential there to be a world-class hub, but it all depends on what developments get built and when. At the moment, progress is slow and now the situation is such that the government naturally has other considerations and other priorities for its money.

Still, there are a couple of projects that should be ready in 2020 and there is a good longer-term plan as well.

My main point is that even though we are in a “wait and see” situation concerning the ramifications of the bombings in Sri Lanka, it is necessary to be proactive rather than reactive. After all, this is a dynamic industry. In one sense, all airlines are always in a “wait and see” situation. Clearly, though, we all have our visions and strategies for achieving those visions.

Broadly speaking, there are many things that can be developed to put the airline, the airport, and the Sri Lankan economy in a better position.

  • 5.5m - In 2018, SriLankan Airlines served more than 5.5 million passengers
  • 27 aircraft make up the SriLankan Airlines fleet, all manufactured by Airbus
  • 109 destinations are served by SriLankan Airlines across 48 countries, including codeshare agreements
  • $2 billion - Our contribution to GDP is in the region of $2 billion and we support many jobs, directly and indirectly

You recently had an all-female crew flight. How important is diversity to aviation’s future?

At SriLankan, we really do welcome everybody. We are seeing more and more females joining the company in a variety of roles, including pilots and engineers. We even see some in cargo handling.

I don’t believe the industry does discriminate but the proof will be in the numbers as we go forward.

Is technology the answer to better customer service?

Introducing technology into customer service is not just about improving the travel experience and giving customers new choices and greater transparency. It is also about doing the basics more efficiently and cost effectively.

Technology should enable you to provide value—value for the customer and value for the business. It is not about implementing cutting-edge systems for the sake of it.

It is always a good idea to have a plan B. Most of all, we need to make sure we have a good cash flow. If you have that, you always have options

What skills does a modern airline CEO need? Is it important to have aviation experience or do you see running the airline the same as running any other business?

I think aviation experience is important. A CEO needs to understand the fundamental of the business and in aviation there are complex elements, such as engineering and distribution, that are not the same as you find in most other businesses.

My background is in finance so, for me, the numbers are vital too. Knowing about the cash flow, about where your costs are, and about your revenue potential, is crucial. As I mentioned earlier, this is how you ensure flexibility in your business plan. It gives you the power to make the correct decisions and be able to act on them.

And these days it helps to know about marketing and information technology too.

But most of all, any CEO needs excellent interpersonal skills. You have to be able to manage the expectations of shareholders, of unions, of staff, and of customers. Everybody needs to understand and be committed to the vision of the business.