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Looking ahead with SriLankan

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at his recent meeting with the staff of SriLankan Airlines advised them :for a country which has overcome such significant and burning issues and political challenges, winning the SriLankan Airlines battle and making it a vibrant and profitable business venture, should not be an arduous task, provided you all rally round the management and accept full responsibility of your duties, he made a very important statement.

The President concluded: "You all should contribute collectively for the betterment of the enterprise, not only to enhance its profits, but also to enhance its pride and dignity."


An airline is an emissary of its nation

The thrust of The President's message is in two nuggets of wisdom and practicality, particularly from an aviation management perspective. The first is the need to rally round the management. The second is to enhance profits as well as the pride and dignity of the airline.

Rallying Round the Management

Although the need to support management is a platitude in any industry, that need is particularly relevant to the air transport industry. The most important facets of aviation right now, as recognized by the international aviation community, are safety, security, sustainability and efficiency.

However, the bottom line remains to be that there is one fundamental asset of the industry which is the air transport product.

This product services the passenger at 30,000 feet up in the air, a feat which no other business product can claim.

The airline's moment of truth is therefore when the crews, be it technical personnel in the cockpit or cabin crew, or airport staff come into contact with the passenger to deliver the air transport product in a safe, secure, sustainable and efficient manner.

This what the staff of an airline, from the humble chap in overalls at the Hangar, to the glamorous captain in the cockpit delivers, and not what members of senior management do in their board room.

It has been said that, in 2020, there would be no more stressed out passengers. There will be more routes to choose from and more flights to more destinations.

Flying will become a customized experience with larger seat pitch, more leg room, quieter interiors and cleaner cabin air quality. Ninety nine per cent of aircraft will arrive on time and depart within 15 minutes of the published schedule.

Electronic check-ins will ensure steady passage through the terminal building and advanced automated baggage handling will ensure that you will sleep in your pyjamas in the hotel, after landing.

Called the 2020 vision, the above reflects how air transport professionals personalities see the future.

The main thrust of aviation in the dawn of the 21st Century lies in the consideration of the abiding moral, if not legal responsibility of the airline industry to take steps in converting the contract of carriage from a mere exchange of rights and liabilities to an extended relationship of give and take between the carrier and the airline passenger.

On the one hand, emerging trends of commercial aviation reflect that, in view of increased competition, airlines have to woo the passenger now more than any time before, with promises of an enchanted journey. On the other, the passenger has to conduct himself better while in the custody of the carrier throughout the journey.

In the new millennium we are in, individual airlines are compelled to remain competitive, just to survive. They need to flow with the tide of such commercial trends as privatization, the use of information technology, removing infrastructure constraints and governmental restraints and most importantly, changing travel patterns.

These trends have given rise to the new phenomenon in the global aviation scene that survival (if not success) of airlines is now dependent not on pricing but on service.

Phenomenon

This new phenomenon calls for the airline product to be similar to one from the entertainment industry, bearing in mind that a passenger spends 70% of his total travel time in the aircraft on long distance flights. To counter strong alliances between countries and airlines, the smaller carriers (as well as the big ones) are now going in more for glamour and in flight luxury to score on the 70% in flight time.

Personal video screens for every seat, satellite assisted telephone facilities and teleconference services are some of the luxuries offered. Indeed, as David Shoenfeld, International Marketing Vice President of Federal Express once said: If you view your services as flying between terminals, you miss the point.

The view that marketing is determined from the view of the customer is becoming more valuable now more than ever before. To survive, airlines have to build brand recognition. In this context, a the results of a recent study are some of the best indicators of the key strategic factors towards achieving passenger satisfaction.

The study used for each airline a PAX/SAT (passenger satisfaction) index that correlates closely with the major indicators of airline performance.

According to the survey, there are 12 important factors influencing passenger choice. They are: flight punctuality; excellence of inflight service; superiority of aircraft; comfortable seats; clean cabin seats and washrooms; good food and beverages; superior first class; superior business class; efficient reservations systems; pricing; good check in service and attractive frequent flyer programmes. At least seven of these factors are entirely dependent on the quality of the aircraft.

The foremost important factor - punctuality cannot indeed, be achieved with aged aircraft. The matter becomes more crucial to a relatively small airline, running a small fleet of aircraft where, if one aircraft is grounded for reasons of repair or maintenance, the entire flight schedule of the airline would be in disarray, leading to delays down the line.

Good name

Connecting services would be disrupted and passengers stranded. It is needless to envisage the effect this catastrophe would have on the airline's good name. No amount of superior inflight service would atone for a six hour delay where a connecting passenger has to sit inside an unknown airport terminal.

It is therefore necessary for any airline to seriously consider removing one of its most burdensome infrastructural constraints - its ageing aircraft. The European Commission, in early 2000, issued a comprehensive consultative document on consumer protection in Air Transport.

This later evolved into a policy statement of passenger rights. This statement introduced a common air transport policy and raised a number of issues such as the contractual rights of passengers, tariffs, and comfort and health.

This Statement maps out an inventory of passenger rights containing the following: Information about Flights and Reservation of Tickets - any passenger has the right to neutral and accurate information; Check-in and boarding- European Community rules require that passengers must receive fair treatment and proper compensation when they are denied boarding; Liability in Case of an Accident- passengers travelling with an European Community airline will receive full compensation in the case of an accident; Data protection- passengers reserving their tickets in the EC have the right to know what personal details about them are being stored on the computerized reservation systems; Air Travel as Part of a Package Holiday- air passengers travelling as part of a package tour or holiday bought in the EC must receive clear and precise information from the organizer about their trip.

They also enjoy clear rights concerning the performance of the contract; Enforcing Passenger Rights- the passenger rights set out above are laid down either directly in EC law or in national laws which have been made to implement EC Directives.

Therefore, airlines, travel agents, tour operators and all other business involved in the provision of air transport services must observe them.

In turn, passengers should stand firm in demanding that their rights are respected and complain when they are not.

Profits, Pride and Dignity

In the air transport industry profit making has been consistently cyclical, where a period of profit follows a period of loss. However, a distinct trend in today's industry is that the quality of service is a determinant of profit, so much so that even low cost carriers who started without frills are now offering the comforts offered by legacy carriers.

SriLankan Airlines, ever since the time of Air Lanka, has not been short in this area and therefore should not find it difficult to continue maintaining its record.

The pride and dignity of an airline is another unique feature in this service industry and is inextricably linked to how the world perceives a country, its people and its independence. An airline is an emissary of its nation, a fact which is recognized through the legal requirement of entry of aircraft in a national registry.

When an aircraft obtains a national character, naturally flowing corollaries to this right which are implicit are put in place, such as the right to claim the nationality of the country of registration as well as protection under international law.

The strongest driver of aeropolitics is national interest. National interest in airlines is a common factor throughout the world and nations have zealously guarded and looked after the interests of their national carriers. Sri Lanka is no exception.

There are various drivers of national interest. Arguably, the starting point of national interest lies in the commercial interests of the national carrier whose interests are often protected by the State the nationality of which the airline bears.

With the exponential growth of the air transport industry, the significance of national interest in a global industry such as aviation has grown over the years. More importantly, recognition of national interests is entrenched in international treaties. This fact is explicitly reflected in article 6 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, signed in Chicago on December 7, 1944.

This provision effectively precludes scheduled international air services from being operated over or into the territory of a contracting state, except with the special permission or authorization of that state, and in accordance with the terms of such permission or authorization.

In Sri Lanka, a country with a rich history of trade as the President has pointed out, national pride in its airline has been a characteristic of the country ever since commercial aviation took off in the late 1940s.

Sri Lanka's national interest and pride in its airline is a natural phenomenon that has been existing in the world since the 1930s as already mentioned. However that interest should essentially lie in good governance.

Evaluating the quality of governance of a democratically elected regime should not only be a preoccupation of the public sector but should also constitute a necessary prerogative of the people being governed.

The most fundamental issue in the evaluation process must inevitably be whether the public governance reforms of a given regime could be assessed with performance measurement tools and models.

Traditional modes of evaluation, with which the voter usually goes to the polls in a democratic environment to select his or her government, are value for money, efficiency of service delivery and customer satisfaction.

At best, these yardsticks have largely been political and economic abstractions which have prompted some academics and practitioners to consider the subject of governance-evaluation as being immeasurable or too much trouble.

The issue is further aggravated by the fact that there is no scientifically approved or accepted model to assess the quality of public governance.

In the end this transition in SriLankan Airlines, from a carrier with an alliance to one which is self managed and governed would be judged by the prudence its management and staff exercised in forging ahead from the strength it started to greater heights. This is a capacity, as the President said, which is within the staff of the airline themselves.

The air transport, airport and tourism industries in Sri Lanka offer tremendous potential for growth and a window of opportunity for the economic development of the country.

History will decide whether the winds of change dispersed much fog from the somewhat turbulent ride the airline had, particularly in difficult times and whether the airline held strong when new clouds appeared on the horizon, which has been a recurrent characteristic of aviation.

EMAIL |   PRINTABLE VIEW | FEEDBACK

Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Ceylinco Banyan Villas
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