(Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa being welcomed in Tokyo after he arrived there on a SriLankan Airlines flight)
By Namini Wijedasa.
The Sunday Times obtains documents showing expenses of the former President.
Former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, spent more than Rs. 785 million within three years to charter SriLankan Airlines aircraft for his visits abroad, documents obtained by the Sunday Times show. The airbuses would often remain idle in various airports until Mr Rajapaksa finished his tours. SriLankan has billed his office a total of Rs 785,079,185 for 90 aircraft movements in 2012, 2013 and 2014. This figure does not reflect other multiple costs such as crew accommodation. These expenses were often met by Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions abroad.
Mr Rajapaksa usually flew on one of two Airbus A340s owned by SriLankan. Their registration numbers are 4R-ADG(a 243-seater) and 4R-ADE (a 299-seater). These long-haul aircraft are the largest the company operates. The respective airbus would be unavailable to other paying passengers whenever Mr. Rajapaksa hired it. This could mean several days.
The most expensive excursion recorded within the three years—in terms of aircraft usage alone—are Mr Rajapaksa’s trips in June 2012 to Lisbon in Portugal, Havana in Cuba, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Johannesburg in South Africa. The expenses are estimated at Rs. 98,270,460 or nearly Rs. 100 million.
The plane left for Lisbon on June 15. It later dropped Mr Rajapaksa in Havana and returned to Colombo. It then departed from Colombo to Rio de Janeiro, where the former President was attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development – and to where he most likely took a commercial flight; ferried him to Johannesburg and came back to Colombo by June 24. That same month, Mr Rajapaksa also chartered flights to Bangkok and London. Five months later, SriLankan Airlines hired out the 4R-ADG for another elaborate journey. It flew Mr Rajapaksa to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on November 19. After two days on the ground, the plane took him to Dubai. From there, the former President boarded a commercial flight for a private visit to Baltimore in the United States. The aircraft returned from Dubai to Colombo on November 22. It went back to Dubai on November 27 to pick up Mr Rajapaksa, who was en route from Baltimore, and deposited him in Colombo on the same day.
In March 2013, the 4R-ADG was chartered for the inaugural flight to Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. That journey only cost the former President’s office a modest Rs. 1,780,800. But June 2014 was another busy month. Mr Rajapaksa flew to Cape Town in South Africa and to Santa Cruz in Bolivia before returning to Colombo. A few days later, he visited Male in the Maldives and the Seychelles, all on chartered flights. The total cost of those excursions was Rs. 76,600,084.
Mr Rajapaksa even chartered a plane for his trip in December 2014 to Tirupati, in South India. Not long after calling a snap presidential election, he flew there to offer prayers at the famous Lord Venkateswara Temple. The cost – Rs. 3,916,836. The bill remains unsettled. He lost his re-election bid not long afterwards.
Another invoice of Rs. 44,195,550 for Mr Rajapaksa’s visit in October 2014 to Rome and the Vatican in Italy has also not been paid, along with a bill of Rs. 28,816,590 for trips in November 2014 to Kathmandu in Nepal and Male in the Maldives. Most other dues have been settled while he was in office.
SriLankan’s costing for these hires do not take into account excessive delays caused by VVIP movements at Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). Nor do they account for flight transfers missed by other paying passengers as a result of these interruptions.
That was not all. Whenever the former President took one large aircraft out of circulation, a multitude of other SriLankan flights had to be adjusted to carry out the operations the missing plane had been scheduled fly. Millions of rupees were lost by the national carrier.
Between December 8 and 20, no less than 45 SriLankan Airlines flights were delayed “due (to) unavailability of ADG due special ops”. This is plainly stated in the company’s official ‘Delay Analysis for December 2013’, a copy of which was obtained by the Sunday Times. “ADG” is a reference to 4R-ADG.
The majority of these, or 37 flights, were late exiting Colombo. However, operations out of several other airports were also disrupted. They are Guangzhou and Shanghai in China, Moscow in Russia, Doha in Qatar, Dubai in the UAE, London in Britain, Chennai in India, and Male in the Maldives. Within those 12 days alone, 72 hours were lost off flight schedules as a result of one aircraft being hired for the use of one VVIP and his teams.
The reasons cited include “A/C (aircraft) changed due to unavailability of ADG due (to) special ops”; “Late boarding due (to) remote bay ops due (to) VVIP movement”; “UL563 delayed due (to) unavailability of ADG due (to) special ops”; and “Insufficient G/T (ground time) for Rotation due (to) unavailability of ADG due (to) special ops”; and so on.
In June 2014, the situation was much worse. That month, 59 SriLankan flights experienced disruptions after the 4R-ADE was reserved to cart Mr Rajapaksa around. He visited Cape Town in Johannesburg, Santa Cruz in Boliva, Male in the Maldives and the Seychelles. According to the ‘Delay Analysis for June 2014’, also seen by the Sunday Times, there were lags in Colombo, Guangzhou and Shanghai in China, Mumbai and Chennai in India, Dammam and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait City in Kuwait, and Male in the Maldives.
From June 11 to 30, 19 hours were lost off the flight schedules. The many reasons cited include “Unavailability of ADE due (to) special ops”; “Late boarding due (to) VVIP movement”; “Late departure due (to) VVIP movement”; and a large number of “aircraft rotations” arising from “unavailability of ADE due (to) special ops”.
“The flight schedule is planned according to the number of aircraft available,” a senior pilot explained. He did not wish to be named. “When one is pulled out, the airline must turn planes around with minimum time, or as quickly as possible, to make up for the flights that the missing aircraft was slotted to do.”
“If, by chance, there is a technical issue or some other delay on one of the aircraft that are in service, everything piles up and it is difficult to catch up because we are minus an airplane,” he said. “It continues till the aircraft is brought back or a flight is cancelled to make good for lost time.”
Mr Rajapaksa was known to take inflated delegations on some of his visits. But they were rarely large enough to fill the planes. “There were a lot of empty seats,” said an official who had been on board one of these flights. On excursions that took several days, SriLankan was also forced to forfeit the services of pilots and cabin crew that travelled with the former President. They were handpicked for these assignments.