High flyers hit a new low in paradise
Three Sundays ago I read in a Sri Lankan newspaper a letter to the
editor from an irate traveller. Should some people travelling abroad
be exempt from security checks at the Katunayake Airport while others
have to stand in queues and have all their bags searched, he asked
Desmond Perera of Colombo 6, complained that while he was waiting
to have his bags security cleared like every traveller is expected
to do, a "foreign gentleman" brazenly walked past the
Air Force personnel who inspect the bags and went directly to the
airline check-in counter. Let Desmond Perera now pick up the story
in his words.
security officer who must have noticed the foreign gentleman not
being checked approached those doing the checking and inquired as
to why he was allowed to pass. His colleague's very casual reply
was that "he" never stops and so they don't check "him".
curiosity now well and truly roused he made a rather casual inquiry
about the identity of this 'gentleman' when he himself reached the
airline check-in counter.
Lo and behold,
the man, happened to be somebody called Walter Riggans, a senior
manager at SriLankan Airlines. If poor Desmond Perera was shocked,
I was stupefied just on reading it.
Now I do not
know whether Perera, anxious to get over the security checks and
board the plane, simply failed to notice this foreign gentleman
have his bags checked. But the brief conversation between the security
personnel seemed to suggest that what he related was what actually
happened that day.
I am not certain
if the foreigner concerned has been correctly identified as Walter
Riggans of SriLankan Airlines. The name was given to him by a person
who was on duty at the time, I presume at the Business Class check-in
counter for a person who brushes past security is unlikely to sit
with the hoi polloi.
the person who mentioned the name could have been wrong. Yet one
wonders. Would a SriLankan Airlines staffer- it is personnel from
the airline who man these counters- be unable to identify one of
the expatriate managers?
Well, in the
normal course of events they would know who is who and the general
pecking order in the carrier in which they work. Supposing, just
supposing, writer Perera had been misinformed and has made a horrible
mistake in his naming of names.
Then one could
rightly expect SriLankan Airlines to send a strongly worded denial
that such an incident ever happened or Walter Riggans himself to
protest at his name being dragged in over a matter that has serious
consequences for airport security and indeed for security on the
So the next
Sunday I eagerly scanned the newspaper concerned expecting to see
a SriLankan Airline reply taking umbrage at one of its high flying
expatriate managers being accused of breaching security.
Surely if anybody
from SriLankan Airlines-or for that matter from anywhere else- had
knowingly ignored security checks then it is a gross violation of
prevailing rules and regulations.
That was all
the more reason why the national carrier should have promptly written
to the newspaper concerned contradicting Desmond Perera's story.
No newspaper that I know of would have ignored such a letter of
denial because the newspaper itself is liable in law for publishing
unchecked and wrong news and information. At least it can plead
in mitigation if on the very first available occasion it publishes
a denial or apologises.
Though I searched
and searched, from the first page to the last, I could not find
any response from the airline. Even if the offending person identified
as a SriLankan Airline's manager is still abroad, the airline is
duty bound to clear its name at the earliest opportunity.
Like any airline
that must be security conscious in this day and age when terrorists
carry explosives hidden in the heels of their shoes and other unexpected
places, SriLankan should be aware of the importance of checking
the baggage of all passengers before they board the aircraft.
Sri Lanka and
the world are well aware how some 20 years or so ago an aircraft
belonging to Air Lanka, the predecessor to SriLankan Airlines was
blown up with explosives smuggled aboard with the help of persons
with some connection with the airline.
In these circumstances,
the lack of a response from the airline a week later to the charge
against one of its expatriate managers leads one to assume that
Desmond Perera's remark might contain much truth.
If it is true-and
so far I have not seen anything to the contrary- then it is an extremely
serious allegation. It not only brings the entire airline into disrepute
but also potentially endangers the lives of those who fly in it.
This is not
to say that Walter Riggans-if he is the person who acted in this
irresponsible manner-is carrying forbidden material on board. Surely
not unless he has suicidal tendencies or likes to martyr himself
for some undisclosed cause.
But what is
to stop others from introducing explosives or other inflammable
material into his baggage. That has been done innumerable times
throughout the world. Drugs, stolen or smuggled diamonds and even
bombs have been carried across frontiers by persons who had no knowledge
they were doing so.
The risk is
even greater when it is known, as Perera says citing the conversation
he overheard, that this foreigner employed by SriLankan regularly
avoids having his bags checked.
some important issues. Does being a foreigner in Sri Lanka confer
some special privileges on expatriates that they can even endanger
the lives of citizens and foreigners alike with such impunity?
colour of Walter Riggans' skin he is subject to the laws and regulations
of Sri Lanka like everybody else.Unfortunately
for us the tattered remnants of colonialism still linger in this
world and those Colonel Blimps believe that we are still a part
of the extended Raj.
about the Air Force personnel doing the security checks. If this
has been going on for some time, and possibly some other expatriate
SriLankan officials might also be acting in a like manner, then
it is a grave dereliction of duty. We have already had the experience
of the attack on the airport by Tiger terrorists where some Air
Force personnel appear to have been derelict.
If this is how some expatriates
with their noses in the air behave, I must add that not all are
like that. It reminds me of Peter Sutch, the then chairman of Cathay
Pacific, an airline with which I had a running battle while in Hong
Kong for dropping Sinhala inflight announcements- an argument I
eventually won when Sinhala was restored.
I have seen Peter Sutch
coming to the Hong Kong airport carrying his own bags and standing
in the queue to check-in like any other passenger. Sri Lankan cabin
crew based in Hong Kong for Cathay have told me that at times Peter
Sutch has even helped in the galley when flights were really full
and crew were stretched.