I don’t think our government really has much of a policy about air travel. I would compare the policies of United Arab Emirates, which has done a terrific job recognizing the value of transportation, of travel. ~ Jeff Smisek
At the Aviation Day in the Asia and the Pacific Region post-pandemic held on 14 July 2023 The International Air Transport Association’s Asia Pacific Regional Vice President Philip Goh, delivering the keynote address said that Sri Lanka should take steps towards creating an aviation blueprint that can lead to greater economic growth and prosperity through the development of a robust aviation industry. Mr. Goh said: “As the industry emerges from the ashes post-COVID pandemic, we believe that aviation and connectivity play an even bigger role in Sri Lanka’s economic development and social progression and advancement. But none of this will happen by chance, thus we urge the Government and all industry stakeholders to collaborate on developing a blueprint to support and to shape the growth and the development of Sri Lanka’s aviation industry,”
Mr. Goh subsumed his vision for Sri Lankan aviation by highlighting three key areas to address in the aviation blueprint: facilitating sustainable growth, ensuring safety, and promoting sustainability. There is seemingly some obfuscation in the words “facilitating sustainable growth” and “promoting sustainability” when taken separately, which should have been “promoting and facilitating sustainable growth”.
This having been said, it is incontrovertible that IATA’s overall vision for the country is both sage and prudent, particularly when one notes words such as “aviation and connectivity” “economic development and social progression and advancement” in IATA’s statement.
There are various factors, some of which are inconsistent with one another, that have to be carefully considered before one even thinks of a blueprint. Such a blueprint should start with the development of a national aviation policy geared to conveying a clear and well-defined statement outlining the country’s objectives, vision, and goals for the aviation sector. This policy should also align with the overall economic and transportation strategies of the country. It should emanate from the legislature, adopted by the Minister of Aviation and reflected in the meaning and purpose of the Sri Lankan regulator – the Civil Aviation Authority .
This is where the snag is.
The vision of the CAA is “to be an adept and credible aviation safety regulator assuring safe skies for all”. This translates into the sole priority being “safety”. In contrast, the mission of the CAA is more wide ranging “to facilitate through strategic planning and effective regulation, the operation of a safe, secure, efficient, regular and environmentally friendly national civil aviation system that conforms to International Standards and Recommended Practices and national legislative requirements. The motto is “safe and efficient skies for all’ and the stance is “the airspace above us is a public asset with vast potential for socio-economic development that needs to be managed for the progress and prosperity of the country and posterity of the nation”.
Thus, the vision is not consistent with the mission, motto and stance.
In 2016 a draft policy paper entitled ‘National Civil Aviation Policy for Sri Lanka’ was developed in consultation with most stakeholders in the industry, both public and private. “The consultation process was inclusive and transparent so that stakeholders have full ownership of the policy”. Highlighted in the proposed policy are “the future direction and positioning of Sri Lanka as a leading aviation and transport hub in the South Asian region. The overarching objective of the policy is to transform the country into a superior air service provider while connecting to the wider world aviation network. The National Civil Aviation Policy identifies that air transport is a force for good in economic and social development and the role of regulatory oversight is key to quality assurance safeguards that ensure adherence to national legislation and global standards. The policy recognizes the need for different levels of development and process of continuous improvement with multi-level of standards.
In other words, it is spot on.
The ”Blueprint” that is suggested must, within the parameters of the policy, include the following elements: There should be a plan for the expansion and modernization of airports, air traffic control systems, and related infrastructure to accommodate the growing demands of the aviation industry. IATA has particularly suggested the development of an airport master plan. This must have a focus on improving airport facilities, runways, taxiways, and air navigation services. Hand in hand there must be a plan that addresses fleet modernization to improve operational efficiency, reduce emissions, and enhance passenger comfort. The government must offer incentives for airlines to invest in newer, more fuel-efficient, and environmentally friendly aircraft. Both airport and airline modernization would encourage fair competition among airlines to enhance service quality and affordability for passengers. Furthermore, consumer protection measures to safeguard the rights and interests of aviation passengers must be implemented.
Training and development programs with a view to building a highly skilled workforce which include educational partnerships with aviation schools and training institutions to ensure a steady supply of qualified personnel, including pilots, air traffic controllers, maintenance technicians, and aviation management professionals would also be integral to a blueprint. There must also be regional and international cooperation with neighboring countries and international organizations in order to facilitate seamless air traffic management, harmonize regulations, and promote the development of cross-border air transport.
One of the important elements of a blueprint would be the implementation of ways and means to incorporate sustainability practices into the aviation industry, such as promoting biofuels, reducing emissions, and investing in research and development of environmentally friendly technologies. Included in such a measure would be the raising of public awareness about the importance of aviation and its contribution to the country’s economy. Engagement between stakeholders, including the public, airlines, airport operators, and industry associations, to gather feedback and ensure their participation in shaping the aviation sector’s future is significantly needed.
Financial support and incentives by way of grants, and incentives the promotion of the growth of the aviation industry and attracting foreign investment along with a periodic review and update to ensure that the aviation blueprint is regularly reviewed and updated to adapt to changing circumstances, technological advancements, and emerging challenges would be the final touches.
Beyond General Elements
IATA has correctly identified that a blueprint must assist in “Sri Lanka’s economic development and social progression and advancement.” This has two elements: air transport economics; and the relationship with the economic progress of the country. As for air transport economics, subjects that would be considered are: the total lack of protectionism i.e. implementation of an open skies policy that allows airlines from different countries to operate freely without restrictions on routes, frequencies, or capacity. This policy encourages competition between domestic and international carriers, providing consumers with more choices and competitive pricing; and the establishment of a transparent and fair slot allocation system at busy airports to prevent dominant airlines from hoarding slots and stifling competition. Airlines should have equal opportunities to access slots based on their needs and performance, allowing newer entrants to have a fair chance at peak times.
Next would be the introduction of clear and equitable regulations for government subsidies or financial assistance to airlines. Such subsidies should be aimed at supporting smaller or struggling carriers to maintain a competitive landscape rather than favoring specific airlines; the establishment of guidelines to prevent predatory pricing and ensure fair ticket pricing practices. This will prevent larger airlines from undercutting prices to drive out competition. Requiring airlines to disclose essential data, including pricing structures, fees, and on-time performance, in a standardized and easily accessible format would also be essential. This transparency will enable consumers to make informed decisions and foster fair competition.
Added to these key areas are: provision of support and guidance to new entrants in terms of market research, regulatory compliance, and initial capital requirements that would help aspiring airlines overcome entry barriers and encourage competition; conducting periodic market analysis to identify potential monopolistic or anti-competitive trends and take corrective actions promptly.
Finally, there is the critical element of making air transport an engine of economic growth both nationally and internationally. For this there are two key measures for a way forward: coordination with other key players in the supply chain; the total elimination of governmental interference and corruption and the provision of government support. For both these goals to attain fruition, a study and application of best practices is essential.
There are several advantages that should provide an impetus for an effective blueprint for aviation in Sri Lanka. Firstly, it is Sri Lanka’s strategic location. Colombo is a geographically advantageous location that could serve as a hub connecting East and West. This location should allow Sri Lankan Airlines to efficiently connect passengers from various parts of the world and create an extensive network of routes. For this there should be strong governmental support and a cogent national culture recognizing air transport as an engine of growth for the country. Next is the durability and efficiency of a modern and diverse fleet of aircraft. Customer experience is also key where the airline must place a strong emphasis on providing an exceptional customer experience which is not only relegated to outstanding inflight service but also to on-time performance. There must be continuous innovation in such areas as in-flight entertainment and high quality service that encompasses the entire passenger experience.
Strong leadership and management that would go towards establishing a sustained brand while at the same time maintaining connectivity should be practiced through the recognition of and adapting to changing market conditions and the making of strategic decisions that support the airline’s growth.
There is no greater investment a nation can make in its future than improving its aviation infrastructure, for it opens the skies to progress, connects people and cultures, and propels the economy to new heights.