Vipula Gunatilleka

Image via SriLankan Airlines

In his first year as CEO of Sri Lanka’s flag carrier, Vipula Gunatilleka has championed an award-winning marketing campaign and witnessed the difference a cake can make.

It’s always better to be a small fish in a big pond than vice versa, but you can get swallowed by the big fish if you don’t know how to survive,” SriLankan Airlines CEO Vipula Gunatilleka warns. We’re meeting in a London hotel lobby whose glass walls and six-story-high skylight make me feel like a small fish in a big tank.

Gunatilleka views SriLankan’s membership in oneworld as an opportunity to make a splash by adopting the best practices of some of the alliance’s thriving airlines. “If you want to be competitive in a marathon with top athletes, you have to run at the same level,” he continues.

Survival Instinct

SriLankan is warming up for the next five years with a strategic plan involving new routes, a better business-class product, digital transformation, a revamped FlySmiLes loyalty program, enhanced service levels and much more. The goal is financial viability – the carrier has accumulated $800 million of debt since Emirates sold its stake to the Sri Lankan government in 2008.

“At some customer touchpoints we are quite good, but in some areas we are not, so we have to fix those,” Gunatilleka says. “That includes making improvements to the systems infrastructure, training staff and getting feedback so we don’t make the same mistakes over and over again.”

Smiling, he recalls a firsthand encounter of the kind of service that makes a difference: “When I was flying last Sunday, a passenger requested a small celebration for his wife’s birthday, so the crew made a cake by assembling individual desserts.” His grin widens as he spots his son, who at the time was studying in Birmingham and had traveled to London a day earlier to visit his father. “My daughter lives in Birmingham, too. She’s a doctor,” Gunatilleka proudly states, as we segue onto the path that led him to the present.

The Boomerang Effect

Born in Kandy, a city in central Sri Lanka, Gunatilleka moved to the west coast to obtain a Master of Business Administration from the University of Colombo, before becoming a chartered accountant. His career has spanned several locations – among them Singapore, Australia, Angola and Sri Lanka. While at General Electric, he was trained in Six Sigma, a rigorous technique that aims to deliver near-perfect products and services.

“We must focus on the good things we are doing and not get distracted. People who want to criticize will criticize.”

Most recently, he served as chief financial officer at TAAG Angola Airlines, prior to taking on the role of CEO at SriLankan toward the end of last year – but his connection with the Colombo-based airline began decades ago. “I used to audit SriLankan, which was Air Lanka at the time, when I worked at KPMG in the late 1980s,” he recounts. “Then … I joined SriLankan as the CFO [from 2005 to 2008].”

Gunatilleka credits the challenges he encountered at TAAG with preparing him for his current position at the helm of Sri Lanka’s flag carrier. “I was part of the management team put forward by Emirates to restructure [TAAG], which was losing many millions of dollars. It was difficult,” he explains. “You’ve got to go in with a positive attitude, always.”

Rising From the Ashes

Gunatilleka’s optimistic outlook faced a massive test just a few months into his tenure as CEO. A series of terrorist attacks at churches and hotels in Colombo on Easter Sunday killed hundreds, including dozens of tourists. SriLankan responded swiftly with a plan to showcase the harmony among Sri Lanka’s diverse ethnic and religious communities.

The campaign took place during the Buddhist holiday Vesak, just one month after the attacks. It involved a series of events at Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), including live performances by a choir comprising airline employees ranging from pilots to administrative staff. The initiative, which was live-streamed over YouTube and Facebook to an audience of 7.6 million people, won this year’s APEX Award for Best Marketing Innovation.

SriLankan Airlines Vesak

Airline staff singing at a celebration of Vesak at BIA. Image via SriLankan Airlines

In a press release published after the accolade was announced during APEX EXPO in September, Gunatilleka gave credit to the hundreds of staff members who volunteered their time to help Sri Lanka’s tourism industry recover from a disastrous situation.

Angling for Change

At a ceremony in September commemorating SriLankan’s 40th anniversary, Gunatilleka recognized 18 employees who have been with the company since the beginning. Looking to the future, cybersecurity, millennials and virtual reality (VR) are all on the CEO’s radar.

“We have implemented many initiatives [to prevent cyberattacks]; we’re really focused on that. Most of the aircraft today are controlled by software – imagine if information gets in the wrong hands,” he cautions.

While Gunatilleka is a fan of traditional seatback in-flight entertainment (IFE), he’s aware that his preferences aren’t necessarily shared by other passenger demographics. “Millennials want to have an office workspace, where they can use their own device,” he opines. “That’s what we’re looking at with the new fleet coming in.”

SriLankan has received positive feedback since it began offering SkyLights VR headsets at its BIA business-class lounge in January of this year, according to Gunatilleka. Will the headsets be offered in flight, as potential entertainment for millennials at work? “We will look into that,” he says.

What’s certain is Gunatilleka’s intention to reel in a new era for SriLankan. “We must focus on the good things we are doing and not get distracted. People who want to criticize will criticize,” he acknowledges, refusing to take the bait.

This article was originally published in the 9.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.