SRI LANKA. Travel industry veteran Rakhita Jayawardena, highly-regarded as a pioneer in inflight retailing and former Chief Executive Officer and Director of Sri Lankan Airlines, has assumed one of the country’s most prestigious posts, as Chairman of Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB).
CEB is Sri Lanka’s second-biggest state entity, with a staff of over 32,000.
The powerful body controls all major functions of electricity generation, transmission, distribution and retailing, helping Sri Lanka become the first South Asian nation to achieve 100% electrification countrywide.
Power to the country is provided through a mix of hydro, thermal and coal plants together with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.
Since assuming the role earlier this year, Jayawardena has maintained his role as President of inflight travel retailer King Power Traveler, a joint venture with the Antares Cheng-led King Power Group (Hong Kong).
Years of service to inflight retail
Professionally, Jayawardena’s career began several decades ago as a General Manager for SriLankan Airlines, which was then in the course of transition from management by Singapore Airlines.
The young executive was charged with developing the fledgling duty free business. Jayawardena, and SriLankan, punched above their weight, astounding the travel retail industry by winning major global accolades at the Frontier Awards in 1984 and 1986.
“We were rated among the best retailers in the world. Can you imagine – from an island country which a lot of industry people didn’t even know where it was!” he once said during an interview with The Moodie Davitt Report.
His expertise and passion for the business would subsequently take him all around the world, from South Africa to New York, the UK to Hong Kong – and most places in between. After assuming an external consultancy with South African Airways at the height of the apartheid era, he took the then radical step of removing revenue-generating seats from the aircraft to allow more space for duty free trollies.
“I told them, ‘I’ll give you more revenue if you give me more space on the aircraft.’ I made this presentation to remove seats and somebody on the board said that I was mad because the airline’s core business was to sell seats.”
Jayawardena recalls his reply as if it was yesterday: ‘Yes, sir. It’s the mad people that change the world.’ “And then they removed the seats.”
But it was far from madness. Spend per passenger (not customer) rose to US$18, which was the highest for any scheduled carrier in the world ever, Jayawardena claims, and particularly noteworthy given that retail prices were much lower back then.
He later moved to the US to take over as President of the world’s biggest inflight concessionaire of the time, IDFS. Jayawardena played a big role in the rejuvenation of the company, which became the first truly global inflight concessionaire, driven largely by his success in securing a flurry of Asia Pacific accounts. He later headed Alpha Onboard Sales & Services, a joint venture between him and the UK plc Alpha Airports Group.
In August 2004, he joined his long-time industry friend Antares Cheng (Managing Director of King Power Group Hong Kong) in an inflight retail partnership called King Power Traveler, which flourishes to this day serving smaller airlines across the Asia Pacific region. Later he became the inaugural President of the Asia Pacific Travel Retail Association (APTRA).
During his career he has been bestowed with numerous awards recognising his contribution to the inflight retail industry. In May 2015 he returned to his career roots, albeit in a very different capacity, serving a stint as Director and Chief Executive Officer of SriLankan Airlines and its sister airline Mihin Lanka. Having figuratively lit up the inflight duty free industry, he is now literally doing the same for his nation’s consumers.