Airlines of South Asia – Part 4

Air Ceylon

As already mentioned in this series, Colombo was the first overseas destination of Tata Air Lines in 1938. As independence from Britain approached after the Second World War, the Government of Ceylon decided to set up its own airline.

Named Air Ceylon and equipped with three war-surplus Douglas DC-3 Dakotas operations formally began in December 1947. Given the many economic and cultural links between India and Ceylon, the first overseas destination was Madras (now Chennai), replicating Tata’s earlier flights.

A tortured existence

The trials and tribulations of Air Ceylon is a fascinating story in itself, having being dealt with in articles by numerous writers, including a comprehensive piece by Roger Thiedeman in the August 1998 issue of Airways magazine.

Suffice it to say that in common with most of the South Asian airlines we have looked at, Air Ceylon too was under-capitalized, run on shoestring budgets by bureaucrats, and subject to constant political interference. Despite a number of alliances with many foreign airlines including Australian National Airways (ANA; 1949-1953), KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (1956-1962), Britain’s overseas flag-carrier BOAC (1962-1972) and UTA French Airlines (1971-1976), Air Ceylon never saw even a brief period of consolidation and solid financial performance.

Varied fleet

During this period the airline operated a modest network of international flights using, initially, the Douglas DC-4 Skymaster (supplied by ANA), later the Lockheed 749 Constellation, a 1049 Super Constellation and a Lockheed 188 Electra turboprop, all leased successively from KLM, then de Havilland Comet 4s and BAC (Vickers) VC10s during the BOAC partnership. During the UTA collaboration three different Boeing 707s and 720s and a Douglas DC-8 flew on behalf of Air Ceylon. Toward the end of its existence Lanka’s national carrier also leased two more DC-8s from airlines of questionable repute. In fact, Air Ceylon has the dubious distinction of operating more aircraft types in its short history than many much larger airlines.

Air Ceylon also operated a regional network, initially using the DC-3s, but in one of the few sensible fleet choices, purchased a turboprop Hawker Siddeley (Avro) HS 748 in 1964. This proved to be a capable and rugged workhorse, particularly for domestic flights. The operation was reasonably successful and expansion was in order. Yet in a typically puzzling decision, the government then purchased a French-built Aérospatiale N (Nord) 262! This aircraft, especially its turboprop engines, proved unsuitable for tropical conditions and barely lasted two years in service, to be replaced later by a second HS 748: a good example of poor decision-making driven by motives that are best left unquestioned.

The final major acquisition by Air Ceylon was a Hawker Siddeley HS 121 Trident, which was inducted in 1969. As the reader will recall PIA had introduced this tri-jet type only recently, so the decision was understandable. The Trident allowed Air Ceylon to expand regionally to Bangkok, Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai) and finally Sharjah in the UAE by the late 1970s.

Pioneering routes but unable to consolidate

One of Air Ceylon’s milestones was the inauguration of scheduled services to the Maldives Islands in 1967. This was to service the growing tourist demand to these idyllic islands and was initially an ad hoc service using the venerable DC-3s. As is now well known, that destination has since grown into a tourism juggernaut and is today serviced by multiple wide-body flights a day from Colombo and all over the world.

By the late 1970s Air Ceylon was struggling to survive. A DC-8-43 had been leased from Templewood Aviation, (feature image) which had earlier provided a Boeing 720. When the partnership with UTA was terminated, Air Ceylon purchased the DC-8-53 (registered 4R-ACQ, with the more common Pratt & Whitney JT3D engine option) hitherto provided by the French carrier. Several leased aircraft, including a Convair 990 Coronado, a Boeing 720 and two VC-10s – even a Sud Aviation Caravelle, for a very brief period in November 1971 – were used at different times to bolster lift, but Air Ceylon proved unable to capture a fair share of the rapidly growing tourism market to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Changes in government led to much speculation about corruption, financial mismanagement and a litany of other accusations, which have become a characteristic of the country’s political fabric.

The final blow came when a bomb, most likely planted by a Tamil separatist group, in September 1978, destroyed one of the two Avro 748s. With a separate airline named Air Lanka in the process of being set up by the new government, Air Ceylon with its proud fatality-free flying record of 32 years quietly went out of existence in 1979.

This did not, however, end the agony.  The new government appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCOI), to investigate the management of Air Ceylon. A damning report released in 1978 pointed out many of the questionable decisions taken by the Directors of the airline, particularly in reference to aircraft leases entered into with Montana Airways, Templewood Aviation and Caledonian Airways (the latter company, based in Beirut, Lebanon, was not connected to British Caledonian Airlines in the UK).

The use Presidential Commissions to enquire into the flag carrier has become a staple of the country’s body politic. Another Commission was to investigate the conduct of Airlanka only a few years after it succeeded Air Ceylon. A third was appointed under President Chandrika Kumarasinghe to scrutinize the purchase of Airbus aircraft for Airlanka – interestingly the findings of this PCOI have never been released.

More recently, a fourth PCOI investigated SriLankan but again the report has not been made public. It is obvious that little has been learnt in the intervening 40 years since Air Ceylon’s demise.

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