Defence
Private flights by air force under a cloud

By Our Defence Correspondent
Before the government banned domestic flights in 1995, one private company, Lionair, operated daily flights to many parts of the country, using its own aircraft and SLAF airfields. Several other companies had planes and helicopters as well, which they used to train private pilots, and also chartered to those who needed their services such as tour operators taking tourists, businessmen and individuals.

Friday’s announcement that the Sri Lanka Air Force will soon recommence domestic flights between five airfields for tourists and locals, begs the question of whether this is a wise use of the already stretched resources of the air force.

Minister of Aviation and Airport Development Jeyaraj Fernandopulle told journalists at a press conference at his ministry on Friday that SLAF aircraft will start services to Weerawila, Anuradhapura and Hikkaduwa, on a trial basis.

Domestic flights will be carried out only by the SLAF, and not by private sector companies, the Minister had said.

Isn’t the government putting too much of a strain on the SLAF, by having it operate as a commercial airliner at a time when all its resources should be focussed on the war? Or is the government not serious about the war any more? (See last week’s column ‘’ Why isn’t the government serious about the war?")

The army has faced severe morale problems very frequently, when soldiers stationed in the Jaffna Peninsula trying to come home on leave have been stranded waiting for flights out of Palali. Many have to come by sea to Trincomalee, which is not an enjoyable journey, and is fraught with the risk of attack by Sea Tigers, after which they have to take a bus or truck back to Colombo.

On many occasions, the SLAF has also been hard-pressed to carry large numbers of wounded soldiers back from the north.

Two weeks ago, the SLAF resumed domestic flights between Colombo and Palali in Jaffna. But this was done purely because the Jaffna Peninsula remains isolated by land and the onset of the Northeast Monsoon makes passage by sea a traumatic event for many civilians who are unused to such voyages and face severe problems such as seasickness. The sea voyage is especially hard on the elderly, and on sick civilians who are travelling to Colombo for medical purposes.

In any case, all travellers between Jaffna and the rest of the country must obtain permission from the Ministry of Defence. Thus, the flights to Jaffna are really a service provided by the SLAF to a particular segment of the public who are undergoing severe hardships. Apart from the Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake which comes under the purview of the Airport and Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (AAASL), all other airfields in the country are owned and operated by the SLAF. These include Ratmalana, China Bay, Ampara, Batticaloa, Weerawila, Hingurakgoda, Anuradhapura, Koggala, Puttalam, and Vavuniya.

The restriction of domestic flights to the SLAF, preventing private companies from competing in this sector is curious.

Before the government banned domestic flights in 1995, one private company, Lionair, operated daily flights to many parts of the country, using its own aircraft and SLAF airfields. Several other companies had planes and helicopters as well, which they used to train private pilots, and also chartered to those who needed their services such as tour operators taking tourists, businessmen and individuals.

Although they were hard-hit by the ban on flying, many of these companies still exist. One, Skycabs, continues to train private pilots at Ratmalana and Katakurunda in Kalutara, and also offers services to the Maldives.

Lionair too, now operates flights to the Maldives. Lionair has been ferrying armed forces personnel around the country since 1995, playing an active support role to the forces albeit for a profit. In fact, if not for the Lionair aircraft, many of the army’s major operations would not have been possible, including the capture of Jaffna town in December 1995. When Deputy Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte raised the Lion Flag in Jaffna and addressed the victorious troops, many soldiers began chanting "Lionair, Lionair," as a mockery of the SLAF.

Apart from ferrying troops who were going for operations, Lionair also brought back troops going on leave, which was a vital function for the maintenance of soldiers’ morale.

Apart from these small private airlines. The national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines has also expressed serious interest in the start-up of domestic flights. This would be nothing new, since Air Ceylon operated domestic flights a few decades ago. Apart from the possibility of making profits on the domestic flights, Sri Lankan Airlines obviously sees the possibilities of boosting tourist arrivals to the country by providing this vital support service for tourists who don’t want to spend many hours being lugged around the country in tour buses.

The danger is that the LTTE could hijack such aircraft, but since they will be operating only from SLAF airfields, this can be easily prevented. In any case, the same danger exists for SLAF aircraft flying domestic passengers, as well.

Meanwhile, President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s move from Temple Trees to President’s House in Fort has caused a frenzy of activity among the Black Tigers, who doubtless see it as an opportunity to attempt more assassination attempts, sources in the north said.

For the last five years, Black Tiger attempts to assassinate the president focussed on the Kollupitiya, Town Hall, Borella and Rajagiriya areas, as well as public rallies during elections. Since the World Trade Centre bombing of October 1997, there has been little LTTE activity in the Fort area.

President’s House offers a greater degree of security than Temple Trees, since it is flanked by other high security installations such as Navy Headquarters, the Foreign Ministry, and Police Headquarters. With all three of these areas already having very heavy security, any suicide bomber would stand no chance of getting through. Approach ways open to the public are only on Sir Baron Jayatilleke Mawatha and Chatham Street where security has been redoubled.

The president’s security units took all precautions for the move, even clearing out the pavement hawkers in Fort, who have been an established institution there for many years. However, the hawkers have now been allowed back.

Security at the 38-storeyed World Trade Center has also been increased with strict ban being enforced on taking cameras and binoculars into the building.


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