Ashok Parthirage, chairman, SriLankan Airlines, was in Delhi on November 25 to woo more Indian travellers to the island nation. SriLankan now operates 54 weekly flights to India under the air bubble agreement, a far cry from the over 100 flights a week it operated before the pandemic.
However, Parthirage is optimistic about business picking up.
A businessman and founder of conglomerate Softlogic Holdings Plc, of which he is the chairman and managing director, Parthirage is also CMD of a number of companies including Asiri Hospital Holdings Plc and Softlogic Capital Plc, all of which are public companies listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange. He is also involved with the MoveNPick hotel in Colombo.
Talking about going back to pre-COVID levels, Parthirage said, “It might not be 300 flights, who knows, it may be even more,” adding that for Indians, “Sri Lanka can be a natural destination not only for holidays but it is also a natural destination for investments and everything else.”
You mentioned going up to 250-300 weekly flights to India in the next few years. Will your current fleet be able to mount so many flights or will you have to go in for a fleet renewal?
Absolutely. I mean our current fleet is not good enough for us. I also said in my speech that we are planning to be a very strong force in the region. Let me put this across to you, our airport is building a second terminal which will increase its capacity by about three- to fourfold from the current level.
We are planning for that with or without the newer aircraft and fleet renewal. It might not be 300 flights, who knows, it may be even more. Indians will start travelling.
Sri Lanka can be a natural destination not only for holidays but it is also a natural destination for investments and everything else. You can even buy your second home there. Also Sri Lanka is a very neutral country in South Asia.
There is a great opportunity not only from a tourism perspective but also from an economic and other perspectives. I am sure Indians are buying their apartments and housing in Dubai and probably have their private investments and park their money in Dubai. What the government is trying to do in our own perspective is to create Sri Lanka as a destination where Indians can do many activities.
In that sense, I think it is natural that there will be travel between India and Sri Lanka. So at SriLankan Airlines it is one of our priorities to see the challenges. We have survived (the pandemic) now we want to build the airline. We do not just want to survive, we want to build a powerful airline which can help our economy.
A lot of private airlines are coming up in Sri Lanka. Do you see them as competition?
SriLankan Airlines is very big. The opportunity is very big. If they can sustain their operations profitably and if they can attract investments to expand, then there can be opportunities. It is too early to predict about any of them
You do not see them eating into your market?
I think right now nothing much has happened. One airline has not even started its business. So it is yet to be seen. At this moment I am not in a position to comment whether they are going to eat into our business or complement us.
India and Sri Lanka signed an open sky agreement in 2003. How much of that have you been able to utilise and how do you see the potential going forward?
There are so many opportunities between the two countries. It is a matter of time how we are going to put effort and investments. Hopefully those things will fall into place.
IndiGo (India’s largest airline by market share) talks about demand for going to Sri Lanka from smaller cities. Is that something that you are noticing as well?
We are already flying into so many destinations. Our first idea is to get back to pre-COVID levels. Then we will look at other destinations.
Any timeline for when SriLankan will get back to pre-COVID level flights to India?
One year. I mean a calendar year so, by this time next year.
So by this time next year SriLankan Airlines will be at over 100 flights a week to India?
Yes. Much more than that.
India is also promoting Buddhist tourism. How do you see that as an opportunity?It is a good opportunity. There are so many Sri Lankans who want to go. It is a big market.