PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- Suriname’s minister of transportation, Andy Rusland, told the media last week that his government is contemplating breaking the lease of the recently acquired Airbus 340-313 that state-owned Surinam Airways (SLM) acquired a month ago from Airbus Financial Services.
The 17-year old aircraft, from 1998 to 2003, was used by China Southwest Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, and Air China. It was the acquisition of this aircraft and the storage of SLM's B-747 in the desert of Arizona since 2009 that led to the recent sacking of SLM's CEO Ewald Henshuijs and the board of directors by President Desire Bouterse for "major blunders."
Many have claimed Surinam Airways has been poorly managed. Critics have identified corruption, an inflated staff, nepotism and government intervention as some of the ills facing the airline. For decades SLM has experienced financial losses, especially on the Paramaribo/Amsterdam route. Having only one aircraft to ply that segment, and especially when the Airbus 340 experiences technical problems or must be taken out of service for routine maintenance, the airline incurs major expenses to compensate passengers and to lease other equipment.
The government claims that the new Airbus 340 has no in-flight entertainment system and the seating is very tight compared to the previous aircraft used on the Mid-Atlantic route and, for a nine-hour flight, it’s not cutting it.
Bouterse was furious upon learning that SLM's Boeing 747-300, which it purchased in 2004 from KLM and retired in 2009, has been parked in Arizona's Penal Park since 2009. This is why some ask why SLM leased another aircraft when its own 747 has been parked for years. Why in the first place did SLM purchase a 747 in 2004 and retire it five years later, some ask.
There seems to be a pattern of bad decisions at SLM, Bouterse asserts.
SLM's Boeing 747 parked in the desert of Arizona hasn’t been maintained and is now junk, according to aviation officials, because it would be too costly to put it back into service. This is why people are asking why the 747 wasn't used as a spare or for cargo.
KLM also flies the Boeing 747 on the Suriname route, but this is still more fuel efficient than the Airbus A340 according to some aviation experts.
Henshuijs said a year ago, "It is sheer necessity, because the company needs a spare unit. If one device fails, passengers can still be accommodated. Having another aircraft is a matter of pure survival.”
Stiffer EU legislation that favours passengers is hemorrhaging SLM, and from recent developments at SLM this problem will continue bleeding the airline.
"With each delay I have to pay 600 Euros per person to hundreds of passengers and transport as well," Henshuijs said some time ago.
So it comes as a surprise to the public that another Airbus 340 instead of two twin-engined wide-body aircraft to ply the Amsterdam/Paramaribo route has been leased by SLM.
But breaking the lease will be costly for Suriname; it’s a five-year contract and the new device has been in service for just a few months. A twin-engine jet like the Airbus 330, Boeing 777 or 767 aren't a quick option because the company does not have an ETOPS certification. SLM management claims that it was difficult to find extended range twin-engine aircrafts and that the certification process was impossible. Economically, the 340 was the most feasible choice, an SLM insider said.
Extended twin-engine operation certification allows an airline to safely operate twin-engineed aircraft at a further distance from the coast, which translates into lower operating costs and shorter flight time
It is alleged that SLM only last April started the process of looking for a replacement of its sole Airbus 340, whose contract expired last November. SLM should have started the process two to three years earlier, an aviation expert said, in order to have sufficient for twin-engine certification (ETOPS), which would have given it more options of looking at the Airbus 330 or the Boeing 777, 767 and 787. For its entire history, SLM has only used four-engined aircraft on the Amsterdam/Paramaribo route and is yet to take the bold step in moving to ETOPS certification. This is a major constraint affecting the SLM.
SLM, on Monday, hit back at the negative press it has been receiving. In a press release, SLM said that it is "very satisfied with the operating performance of the new Airbus and the many positive feedback from the travelling public." The release added that SLM Board and its staff are fully behind the decision to lease the Airbus 340-313 for the next four years.
The government recently appointment Louis Voigt to head SLM. However, insiders at SLM claim that he is not "the man for the job." They claim that he lacks the skills and experience to turn the airline around.
However, the government has been also accused of dragging its feet in embracing the tourism and aviation sector robustly. The country lacks the physical and human infrastructure to aid those sectors. And SLM has been at a political toy for successive governments, critics claim.