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Right-to-Reply: Air Ceylon

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This article written by Suren Ratwatte is published as a response by the author to our early publication of article ‘What Happened To Former Sri Lankan Carrier Air Ceylon?‘ taken from Simple Flying, seeking clarity.

“Too many factual errors to count in this piece. I do not know who Mark Finlay is but he needs to do more research before publishing. Shame on #LNW for not fact checking,” Ratwatte wrote on his Twitter handle providing an article about ‘Air Ceylon.’

“The most comprehensive piece on Air Ceylon was written by my dear friend Roger Thiedeman in #Airways of August 1998 but I cannot find that on the web,” he added.

LNW wishes no ill-will to provide false information to our readers and we value the golden principle of ‘right-to-reply,’ and Mr. Ratwatte’s response is hence of importance.

Airlines of South Asia — Part 4

By Suren Ratwatte

Great expectations

As the 1940s drew to an end, there was a great feeling of expectation in Colombo. The Second World War had ground to an awful end with the use of the atomic bomb in August 1945. The human cost of the conflict had been high, with Ceylonese youth serving in Imperial British forces throughout the world. But, except for a brief scare in April 1942 when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the island, Ceylon had largely escaped unscathed from the terrible conflict.

Britain, depleted by the war effort, was preparing to withdraw from India. It was obvious that Ceylon would gain independence soon as well, though there was little local pressure to achieve this. The Government of Ceylon, looking to build a new nation, decided to set up its own airline as part of this effort.

Named Air Ceylon (IATA code: AE) and equipped with three war-surplus Douglas DC-3 Dakotas (see photo above taken at Ratmalana), 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 the pioneering Tata Airline’s flights before the war.

Trials and tribulations

The trials and tribulations of Air Ceylon is a fascinating story in itself. Numerous writers, have approached the subject with varying degrees of success. The definitive work is probably the comprehensive piece by Roger Thiedeman, published in the August 1998 issue of Airways magazine.

Suffice it to say, that in common with most of the airlines of the era, Air Ceylon too was poorly conceived, under-capitalized, run by bureaucrats on a shoe-string budget and subject to constant political interference. Despite a number of alliances with multiple 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), AE was never to see even a brief period of consolidation and solid financial performance.

KLM Super Constellation in AE colors — courtesy ALK_VA

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 (above) and a Lockheed 188 Electra turboprop, all provided by KLM, were utilized. Later still, during the BOAC partnership, de Havilland Comet 4s and BAC (Vickers) VC10s were operated. During the UTA collaboration three different Boeing 707s, 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.

AE Electra with KLM registration in Colombo — courtesy DP Regional and domestic network

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 leading to a significant financial penalty. What prompted the government of Ceylon to purchase the French aircraft is best left unexplored.

HS 748 Avro — courtesy ImageEvent

The final major acquisition by Air Ceylon was a Hawker Siddeley HS 121 Trident, which was inducted in 1969. Pakistan’s PIA had introduced this tri-jet type only recently, as we saw in an earlier column, so the choice was not unreasonable. Arguably the acquisition of the Boeing 727 would have been a much better choice, but with British commercial interests still prevailing at the time, the Trident was an understandable choice. The Trident allowed Air Ceylon to expand regionally to Bangkok, Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai) and finally Sharjah in the UAE by the late 1970s.

Air Ceylon Trident in flight — Twitter

One of AE’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. The first airline to provide scheduled service to the Maldives, Air Ceylon missed an opportunity to consolidate and build on what was to become a tourist Mecca within a few years.

AE DC-8 — courtesy DP

By the late 1970s Air Ceylon was struggling to survive. The DC-8–43 pictured here (registration 4R-ACT; a relatively rare variant with Rolls-Royce Conway turbofan engines) had been leased from Templewood Aviation, which had earlier provided a Boeing 720. When the partnership with UTA was terminated, Air Ceylon purchased the DC-8–53 used by the French carrier. Several leased aircraft, including a Convair 880, a Boeing 720 and two VC-10s, were used at different times to bolster lift, but AE proved unable to capture its fair share of the rapidly growing tourism market to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, or the labor traffic to the Gulf via Sharjah.

Changes in government led to much speculation about corruption, financial mismanagement and a litany of other accusations. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry was tasked to investigate corruption and malpractice in Air Ceylon. The newly elected government of Sri Lanka decided to establish a separate airline, named Air Lanka, for international routes based out of Katunayake airport to the north of Colombo. Air Ceylon was to continue some limited flying, mainly domestic, out of the smaller Ratmalana airport.

The final blow came in September 1978, when a bomb destroyed one of the two remaining Avro 748s, which was parked at Ratmalana, shortly after it returned from a flight to Jaffna

Air Ceylon with its proud fatality-free flying record of 32 years, quietly went out of existence in 1979.

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