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Peter Hill: planning the future of SriLankan

By Jackie Thompson in London

SriLankan Airlines is in a holding pattern at the moment, and will be until the president of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse, who appointed a new cabinet following his recent election win,  reveals his plans for the country’s flag carrier.

A change of direction could see a change to the carrier’s management contract held by Emirates (which owns 44% of the carrier) and so until the future is clearer major decisions on aircraft orders and additional destinations are on hold, says Hill.

SriLankan was probably hit hardest by last December’s tsunami because it relies heavily on tourist traffic to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The tsunamis had a dramatic effect on the island’s tourism industry which had been booming following a 2002 ceasefire that ended more than two decades of civil war between the government and Tamil rebels.

The carrier has since steadily grown its fleet from six Airbus aircraft following a rebel attack on Colombo airport in 2001 to 14 Airbus aircraft today. But further expansion is on hold.

However, Peter Hill, SriLankan chief executive, is not on autopilot until that happens. He has big plans for his carrier and is just waiting for the go-ahead to put them in train. “India is the focus of our thinking,” he says, pointing out the enormous potential for passenger traffic to and from the region.

Vast numbers of workers travel backwards and forwards, as well as traders importing goods they carry in a huge amount of baggage, which, says Hill, is a good business case for operating widebodies with plenty of belly cargo space. 

Since the tsunami, the large numbers of charity and aid officials entering Sri Lanka have driven a resurgence in business-class traffic. Two years ago the carrier downsized its business class, according to Hill, down from 30 to 18 seats, but he says he is now looking at a possible reconfiguration of the carrier’s A340s within the next 18 months, which would see the installation of 24 flat bed seats in business class.

Any enhancements to the carrier’s in-flight entertainment and connectivity offerings will have to wait until new aircraft are acquired, Hill insists, as the cost of upgrading existing aircraft would not be worth the investment.

The carrier’s fleet of A330/340s is due for replacement and Hill has been studying the A350 and the stretched version of the Boeing 787. Whichever aircraft SriLankan decides to acquire, Hill anticipates taking delivery around 2011-2, but until then, he expects any replacement aircraft to be additional A340s. He is also looking at acquiring regional aircraft – probably 50 to70-seat turboprops – with a view to operating services to smaller airports in southern India and expanding SriLankan’s domestic air taxi division, which flies some six to eight flights daily around 12 destinations in and around the island state. From this winter scheduled flights will be added to the service.

Hill says tour operators have begun including the air taxi transfers in their holiday packages. Typically a road trip between Colombo and some inland destinations can take six hours while a SriLankan air taxi flight takes less than 30 minutes.

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