Band Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO, April 15 (Reuters) – A plan by Sri Lanka’s national airline to lease nearly two dozen planes has drawn public criticism and condemnation from the opposition as the country grapples with its worst financial crisis in decades.
Sri Lanka is struggling with low reserves which have shrunk by more than 70% over the past two years to $1.93 billion at the end of March.
The dollar crisis has caused severe shortages of fuel, food and medicine, with power cuts for hours a day for more than a month.
On Tuesday, Sri Lanka suspended some external debt repayments and said it would instead use the meager dollar cache to focus on essential imports.
Protesters demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa staged daily sit-ins outside his office.
Tender notices for the lease of 42 aircraft were published Thursday on the airline’s website.
SriLankan Airlines is struggling with a decline in tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.
In 2019/20, SriLankan Airlines reported a loss of 44.14 billion Sri Lankan rupees ($140.90 million) compared to 41.70 billion Sri Lankan rupees the previous year.
“This must be a joke?!” Harsha de Silva, MP for the main opposition alliance Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), said in a post on Twitter.
“Sri Lanka is bankrupt; no fuel, gas or medicine. Where the hell is the money for this nonsense?! Better to clarify immediately.
Another opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), demanded that the carrier cancel the proposal as many Sri Lankans voiced their disapproval online.
“What good is a new plane when you have no fuel to fly,” said Twitter user Shiv Theyagamurti.
The airline’s chairman, Asoka Pathirage, said the carrier was looking for 21 planes to lease in a first round as part of its 2022-2025 business plan to replace planes that would be phased out of its existing fleet.
“We are only looking at market availability. SriLankan Airlines will finance these leases and we will not be dependent on government funds,” he told Reuters.
“The airline has made a profit. We have debts but we need to earn money to pay them back.”
The government will begin talks with the International Monetary Fund on Monday for a loan program.
(Reporting by Uditha Jayasinghe in Colombo; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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