The Long Haul

16 Nov

Aitken Spence has been the General Sales Agent (GSA) for Singapore Airlines (SIA) for longer than any other GSA associated with the airline. The long haul with the world-admired airline has been a journey of challenge and opportunity.

Sasi Ganeshan, Managing Director of Aitken Spence Aviation, and Keethi Jayaweera, Jt Managing Director, have each spent more than 30 years representing and promoting Singapore Airlines in Sri Lanka. Much of the success of the long-term relationship between the airline and Aitken Spence has been due to the excellent relationship that exists between SIA and Aitken Spence and the staff exclusively dedicated to Singapore Airlines.

“The relationship has survived because of mutual respect built up over the years,” says Jayaweera. “We have developed an enviable compatibility between us. SIA require a GSA who is a hundred percent reliable, trustworthy and honest, and we have never let them down.”

The role of General Sales Agent in Sri Lanka covers everything an airline does except operate flights. Most of the airlines serving Sri Lanka do so through a GSA. The relationship between Aitken Spence and Singapore Airlines has its roots in the appointment by Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) of Eus Tours, owned by Mr Eustace Ranasinghe, as their GSA in 1970. Malayan Airways had been formed in 1947 and eventually – as MSA – began flights to Colombo in 1970.

The Long HaulIn 1972, the airline split into SIA and Malaysian Airline System (MAS), with SIA concentrating on international flights and MAS operating mainly domestic routes and some selected international flights. It was in that year that Eus Tours went into partnership with Aitken Spence to form ASET Airways Ltd (AS = Aitken Spence and ET = Eus Tours) to be the GSA for the revamped airline. When SIA became independent of MAS, Aset Airways became SIA’s choice for GSA. It has remained so ever since, even though the company was rebranded as Aitken Spence Aviation in 2006.

Aitken Spence Aviation is exclusively dedicated to SIA in Sri Lanka, handling both passenger and cargo operations for the airline. Some 50 Sri Lankans, all employed by Aitken Spence Aviation, work in the SIA offices in the Aitken Spence Tower in Vauxhall Street and at the Bandaranaike International Airport. There are that number of employees to make sure the standard of service matches that required by SIA, as the airline is renowned for its emphasis on good customer care. Only two employees – the Country Manager and the Airport Manager – are Singaporeans on a posting to Sri Lanka.

Although the relationship has lasted so long between SIA and Aitken Spence, it is subject to review and monitoring of over-all performance. “Our relationship has become the benchmark for agreements SIA has with other GSAs elsewhere,” says Managing Director Ganeshan. “We are totally honest and open, understanding each other’s problems. This bond survived a period when SIA didn’t fly to Sri Lanka in 1985 & 1986 when we went “off line” for a year.”

“Off line” in this case means that the airline was still represented by Aset Airways in Sri Lanka and the GSA could make passenger bookings and cargo arrangements for SIA flights worldwide, even though the airline wasn’t flying to Colombo. SIA responded to the loyalty of its GSA and its passengers in Sri Lanka by maintaining services to/from Colombo even when other major airlines suspended flights because of terrorism. When the airport was closed because of a terrorist attack, only one SIA flight was cancelled and the airline resumed scheduled flights the next day. Now the airline operates day time flights to and from Singapore.

The airline is popular with travellers going beyond Singapore to other SIA destinations worldwide, in part because Sri Lankans do not require a visa to visit or transit Singapore. Although the ticket office run by Aitken Spence Aviation is as luxurious as flying first class with SIA, there is no longer much walk-in business from passengers wanting to buy tickets. “Ticket sales have changed,” says Jayaweera. “Most of the sales come through travel agents because they give a full service such as applying for destination visas for passengers, passport formalities, insurance and hotel accommodation. We give the travel agents support with accurate fare quotations and details of scheduling. Other ticket sales are done through the Internet, although that has not yet become popular here as Sri Lankans prefer to deal with people they can see and trust.”

“No other GSA in Sri Lanka goes in for the training we provide our staff,” says Ganeshan. “We have an annual budget for training of Rs2 million, and our staff go to Singapore very two years for training in the latest methods.” Jayaweera adds: “Lots of people heading the airline business in Colombo started with SIA and got their GSA exposure working with us.”

This exposure extends even to the Singaporeans who, over the years, have been appointed as Country Managers working with the GSA and have gone on to senior positions with SIA and with other airlines. Ganeshan recalls with a smile: “Some of them didn’t want to come here, but when it is time to leave, they didn’t want to go.”

He explains that is because the attention to detail and genuine desire to do their extra best, typifies the attitude of all those working with Aitken Spence Aviation. It’s a quality born from the long haul of nearly 40 years association shared by SIA and Aitken Spence. It creates the sense of confidence that is essential to a good business relationship between the GSA and the airline’s clients, whether they are booking flights or sending cargo.

2009 – Ace Magazine Issue I

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