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Sri Lankan Airlines CEO aims for Chinese market

Kapila Chandrasena, 48, says the two nations, with very ancient cultures, have a lot in common. He believes Chinese visitors will make the island nation a popular destination once they learn about its beauty, its people and its culture, as well as the airline’s services.

While Sri Lankan Airlines has boomed in the Chinese market in recent years, its Director and Chief Executive Officer Kapila Chandrasena is not content with the status quo. The 48-year-old expects to make the company a gateway to open up the travel market of the island country to China.

Shanghai Daily talked to Chandrasena when he visited Shanghai recently.

Entering the Chinese market in 2004, Sri Lankan Airlines now has 14 flights between China’s mainland and the country every week, five to Shanghai and Beijing respectively, and four to Guangzhou. It also has three flights per week to Hong Kong.

“The Chinese market is a huge opportunity for us,” said Chandrasena. “And vice versa — we feel that we have a lot to offer Chinese customers. So this time, I’ve come to China to meet people from different agencies to understand people’s requirements.”

Chandrasena said for the past decade, the company has developed services especially for Chinese travelers. For instance, apart from Sri Lanka, the company’s flights also take Chinese visitors to the Maldives, which has become a popular destination for young Chinese travelers.

“We know that Chinese newlyweds love to go to Maldives for their honeymoon, so couples who take our flights can enjoy wine and snacks especially for them on board. Couples can also get some memorable photographs,” said Chandrasena. “And the service covers both business and economic cabins.”

He said for the company’s future plans in China, he expects that the flights in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou will expand to a daily basis in two years, and next, the company will consider opening up new routes in secondary cities.

“We think Chengdu and Kunming are two ideal options,” he said.

Chandrasena said although Chinese people may not know much about Sri Lanka yet, the country has a lot of options for tourists and has great potential to become a popular holiday destination.

“China and Sri Lanka are both very ancient countries and the two have a kind of historical link,” he said. “I believe Chinese tourists would love our country, its people and culture. In fact, our government has identified China as a new, key tourism market, so we do have some help from the government in promoting our tourism options, say, to Chinese travel service agencies.”

Chandrasena said the company should take advantage of the opportunity provided by the growth of social media in China.

“I know that Chinese citizens are very active and talkative on social media, so I believe it would be a great channel for interaction.”

Chandrasena joined Sri Lankan Airlines in 2008. After working as a regional CEO in Mihin Lanka, and then as a member of the Board of Directors of Sri Lanka, he was appointed CEO of the company in July 2011.

Chandrasena obtained bachelor’s degrees in marketing and engineering at the University of Chicago in the 1980s and obtained an MBA from the University of Melbourne in the 1990s.

“I always liked to experience different cultures and lifestyles in the world, so I decided to leave my country after I graduated from high school,” said Chandrasena. “And it proved that I was right because there’s so much to look at, to learn and to experience.”

Before entering the aviation industry, Chandrasena served in senior positions in a number of multinational companies based in the United States, Australia and Sri Lanka. He worked in senior management and marketing positions with Sri Lanka Telecom, NEC Australia Ltd and Hewlett Packard Ltd.

“When I was a child, I always liked science and engineering,” he said. “I didn’t have a specific dream about what I wanted to do when I grew up, but I knew my future job would have something to do with that. I joined the aviation industry because I believed it would be a new challenge for me.”

Chandrasena said he has visited China around 10 times for the past 15 to 20 years. He noticed the changes in the past decade.

He remembered that when he first visited China, he was still working for HP in Australia.

“We wanted to promote PCs and printers in the 1990s, when the company did not have a very large market share in China,” he said.

Chandrasena said he finds that people now in China are much more aware of what’s going on outside the country.

“Not to mention the huge economic evolution, which is, of course, very impressive,” he said.

Chandrasena said he hopes that he, as well as Sri Lankan Airlines, will play a key role in serving Chinese travelers in the future.

“I hope that we can connect people from the two countries,” he said.

Blowin’ in the wind

Q: What is your favorite holiday destination?

I believe my favorite holiday destination is in Asia, such as China. It is a place that gives people many surprises. I’ve been to China many times, to many of its cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Shenzhen. The country has many options to offer tourists. Besides, I also love Australia and South Africa. Both are great places that can give me different experiences.

Q: What is your favorite holiday destination in China?

I should say Shanghai has become my new favorite after this visit, although I have just stayed here for two days, because it is really a city that is well planned. It is a city mixing the tradition and the modern. Besides, people here are also very friendly.

Q: What is your favorite way of travel?

Taking flights, absolutely, because it is the most efficient way to travel. You can go to your destination as fast as possible, so you can spend more time at your destination.

Q: What is your standard of ideal service in the aviation and accommodation industries?

I believe ideal services mean human interaction. Take aviation for example, where the service has two aspects: one, the comfort you get on the aircraft; and two, the comfort you get from people. I believe that interaction between people is what makes you special and different from others, because that service is different for each person.

Q: What is your motto for life?

I think it is “always try to make things simple but also look for new ways to do things.” Simplicity and innovation, that is.


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