At a signing ceremony today at the newly opened Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Sri Lanka (named after President Mahinda Rajapaksa and located in his hometown of Hambantota), Sri Lankan Airlines officially became a member of Oneworld. From tomorrow (May 1) onwards, all of its passengers will enjoy more benefits from other airlines in the alliance.
It is the first airline in the Indian subcontinent to join an alliance.
Nishantha Wickramasinghe, chairman of the airline, said he hoped to make Sri Lankan a "vibrant Asian hub, vibrant Asian destination" while becoming a new hub for Oneworld. The carrier is responsible for 40 per cent of the visitors to the island country.
Bruce Ashley, Oneworld chief executive, asserted that, with its first Indian subcontinent member having joined, the Oneworld network has covered all the major business cities in the world and there are no gaps that need to be filled, although the alliance continues to talk to airlines, including those in India. China, he said, has been well covered by Cathay Pacific and its sister airline Dragonair.
Rupert Hogg, chief operating officer of Cathay Pacific, pointed out that Sri Lanka Airlines' admission has a "special significance" as it represents Oneworld's "biggest expansion since the alliance was established 15 years go", following new members such as Qatar Airways (see story), Lan, Tam and US Airways (see story). "In fact, we believe it is the biggest and fastest expansion of any alliance to date." He also highlighted that with the merger of American Airlines and US Airways having created the largest airline in the US (and the largest in the world by passenger number), it also makes Oneworld the leading alliance in the the country.
Although still a relatively small operator, Sri Lankan Airlines has almost doubled in size since the end of civil war in its home country four years ago, and there are aggressive expansion plans in place. It operates a 21-strong fleet that includes eight Airbus A320s/321s, seven A330-200s and six A340-300s. The airline has on order of 10 new aircraft, with four of them being A350-900s, the first of which is to be delivered later this year.
The Sri Lankan flag carrier became member-elect of Oneworld in 2012 (see story), with Cathay Pacific (CX) as its sponsor. After completing a readiness review conducted by CX it was then put on track to offically become a member. The Colombo-based carrier will bring two new destinations to Oneworld’s network– Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and India’s Tiruchirapalli. But more importantly, being a Oneworld member helps enhance Colombo as a transit hub, according to the airline's chief executive Kapila Chandrasena. "Currently the percentage of transfer passengers is 45 per cent, and it will hopefully become 50/50. We expect an increase in point-to-point traffic to Colombo as well," Chandrasena said.
Colombo, with Bandaranaike as its main international airport (the other being Ratmalanam, but it remains mostly for domestic flights), is a popular transit point for India and the Maldives.
From tomorrow (May 1) onwards, all 100,000 members of Sri Lankan’s Fly Smiles loyalty programme will have their frequent flyer privileges recognised by all Oneworld member airlines. Platinum cardholders of Fly Smiles will gain Oneworld Emerald status, while Fly Smiles Gold will be equivalent to Oneworld Sapphire, and FlySmiLes Classic to Oneworld Ruby.
Perhaps one of the biggest perks premium passengers of Sri Lankan Airlines and Fly Smiles Platinum and Gold members will be most delighted by is access to 600 plus lounges offered by Oneworld members around the world. For example, when flying out of Hong Kong International Airport, they will no longer be limited to the Plaza Premium Lounge, but will be able to make use of great facilities such as The Wing and The Bridge (see story) by Cathay Pacific, and the new Qantas business lounge (see story).
At Bandaranaike, Sri Lankan Airlines offers the Serendib and Serendiva Lounges, and Chandrasena believes that they are sufficient to handle demand for the next two years. A new pier is expected to open in 2016, by then there should be more offerings.
In terms of in-flight products, most of the airline's fleet has been retrofitted with new business class flatbeds complete with next-generation inflight-entertainment system. They won't be installed on the A340 aircraft, which will be phased out by October. Chandrasena has also revealed that the airline is planning to make orders for B737-800s to increase its fleet's flexibility in capacities and efficiency. New destinations being considered include Hyderabad in India, and countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.