Impounding of Aeroflot Airbus creates diplomatic spat

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A diplomatic spat erupted between the Russian Federation and Sri Lanka, after the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) refused to allow an Aeroflot Airbus A330 aircraft to depart the country, despite the CAASL’s pledge that it would not impound their airliners under any circumstance.

An official from the Russian Embassy met Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris yesterday (3) and queried why CAASL did not keep its word that it would not impound the flight and accept the Restraining Order submitted by a local lawyer representing Aeroflot’s Irish lessor rather than accepting it from the registrar of the Attorney General’s Department.

When the lawyers submitted the Court order, the CAASL had grounded the flight in fear, whereas legally the Airbus could have left with its passengers.

According to former Sri Lankan ambassador to Russia, Udayanga Weeratunga, the CAASL had stated in writing to the Russian Government that Sri Lanka would not allow Aeroflot aircraft to be impounded and that assurance was given without consent from the Foreign Ministry and the Attorney General’s Department, which was of paramount importance, as Russia is being penalised for its invasion of Ukraine. The guarantee letter was issued by CAASL in March this year.

“It’s risky not to have double-checked with the Foreign Ministry and the AG’s Department whether the CAASL could offer a guarantee letter of that nature,” he added.  CAASL, in the letter, said scheduled, registered Aeroflot flights will not be impounded in Sri Lanka.

Russia is engaged in a severe diplomatic tussle with the West over the war in Ukraine. Global players and aviation experts have raised concerns and brought sanctions on Russia due to the ongoing Ukraine war. It is said that over 175 Aeroflot aircraf are leased for 10 to 15 years from many Western countries and they are demanding their aircraft back and have also cancelled the leasing agreement with the airline.

On Thursday (2) morning, the Russian Airbus A330 was grounded with only 30 minutes left for takeoff, with 191 Russian tourists who had come to Sri Lanka. The entire tourism network is run by Weeratunga.

He said a few days back, the same flight had come to Sri Lanka and the lessor was not aware of this. However, this time they managed to impound the aircraft through a local law firm in Colombo and file a case at the Colombo Commercial Court.

Initially, the local lawyers representing the Irish leasing company that owns the Airbus demanded for Rs 90 million as a one-time leasing payment. Aeroflot had assured that it would deposit this amount in the lessor’s account and demanded to release the flight back to Russia. However, the leasing company has refused to allow the Airbus to be released. Over this, the legal battle may drag on for a couple of days, and if the Airbus is not released, Sri Lanka may have to deal with the consequences. The Enjoining Order will remain in effect until 16 June. The plaintiff states they have a settlement case with the respondent, the Russian airline, however, now they would not want the airline to leave too.

It looks like the owner of the airline wants the Airbus back too, Weeratunga said. There is a slight confusion whether it is the leasing settlement or the Airbus they want back and at the next hearing we may have a clearer picture, Weeratunga added.

Russia has also assured a US$ 500 million line of credit to purchase fuel from them and one consignment has arrived already. Russia is also one of the leading tea importers and bilateral ties look grim right now.

The tourists have been put up at two hotels in Katunayake and Negombo and Russian-owned Aeroflot aircraft were expected to arrive by Saturday and Sunday with another set of tourists and they will repatriate those stranded tourists.

According to Weeratunga, Russia owns around 8 Aeroflot aircraft and the rest is all on lease from various Western countries. In the future, only those Russian-owned aircraft can fly out of Russia and the leased aircraft cannot fly out, as they may be impounded by the lessor in any part of the world.

Presently, there are three Aeroflot flights operating between Russia and Sri Lanka weekly, with two flights to Malé. It is the duty of the CAASL to demand that only Russian-owned Aeroflot aircraft operate to Sri Lanka and this is a big mistake, Weeratunga said.

Also, the flight should have left the country, as the Restraining Order did not come from the Registrar of the AG’s Department, so it was unnecessary to halt the flight, he lamented.

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan