By P.K. Balachandran
Colombo, June 4: The detention of a Russian Aeroflot flight with 191 passengers on board at the Colombo International airport on June 2 following an order from the Colombo Commercial High Court, is threatening to jeopardize Russo-Sri Lankan ties.
The Russian Foreign Office summoned the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Moscow, Janitha Abewickrema Liyanage on Friday and lodged a protest saying that the detention of the aircraft was “groundless” and that it could have a “negative impact on the traditionally friendly bilateral relations.” The Russians “urged the Sri Lankan side to settle this problem as soon as possible.”
On Friday, Aeroflot reported that the departure of its SU-289 flight from Colombo to Moscow scheduled for June 2 was at first delayed and then canceled due to the absence of a permit from Sri Lanka’s aviation authorities. Earlier, Colombo’s Commercial High Court had entertained a complaint filed by Ireland’s leasing company, Celestial Aviation Trading Limited, against Aeroflot and banned its Airbus A330 jet from leaving the country until June 16. However, a court hearing to lift the seizure of the aircraft is scheduled for June 8, 2022.
Meanwhile, displeased with the detention and backed by the Russian government, Aeroflot announced that it will be suspending commercial flights to Sri Lanka for the time being. “Aeroflot is suspending commercial flights to Colombo (Sri Lanka) for the near future due to the unreliability of the situation in terms of ensuring unhindered flights of the airline’s aircraft to Sri Lanka. Ticket sales for flights to Colombo are temporarily closed,” the company said in a statement.
“Aeroflot passengers who are in Colombo (Sri Lanka) and have tickets for return flights to Moscow SU289 dated June 2, June 4 and June 5 will be delivered to Moscow by SU289 flights departing on June 4 and June 5,” the news agency Sputnik reported.
Sputnik saw this row as being part of the Ukraine crisis and the US and Western sanctions against Russia for launching military operations against Ukraine.
“The wave of EU sanctions against Russia over its military operation in Ukraine banned sales of aircraft and their parts to Russian carriers and obligated European leasing companies to retrieve all leased planes from Russia. A number of countries have closed their airspace to Russian flights and threatened to detain the planes registered and leased abroad,” Sputnik recalled.
After Western countries sanctioned Russia for attacking Ukraine, aircraft lessors demanded the return of the leased planes but Russia retained most of them, saying that the demand violated lease agreements. Russia also started registering planes in the country itself. The aircraft in question was registered in Russia in April and Sri Lanka was duly informed.
The Russian government said in a statement that the aircraft was registered in Bermuda and had dual registration. It further said that the Airbus A330 aircraft in question had flown to Sri Lanka on 7 previous occasions. It had been detained even after the Sri Lankan authorities had given a guarantee to the Russian aviation agency last March, that they would not detain aircraft of the Russian airline.
The Irish Lessor’s Case
The Colombo-based financial daily DailyFT said that the owner of the aircraft, Celestial Aviation Trading Ltd. of Ireland, had filed action against the Aeroflot Russian Airlines seeking interim relief from the Commercial High Court of Colombo pending arbitration proceedings instituted in London.
According to the lessor, the aircraft, identified by its unique manufacturer’s serial number registered in Bermuda, was leased by its owner to Aeroflot, and the said lease was terminated in March 2022 due to Aeroflot’s failure to act in compliance with the terms of the lease agreement.
Contrary to the owner’s request to cease operations of the aircraft and handover possession, Aeroflot continued the use of the aircraft for flights between Colombo and Moscow. It has been further submitted to Court that the aircraft did not have a valid airworthiness certificate or an insurance, as per the terms of the lease.
While these disputes had already been referred to arbitration in London, the owner, Celestial Aviation, sought relief in the Commercial High Court to preserve the subject matter of the dispute (the aircraft) until the determination of the arbitration, by seeking an enjoining order against Aeroflot preventing them from operating, handling, taking off the ground the identified aircraft. A further enjoining order was sought to prevent Aeroflot from removing any parts, equipment systems and modules etc.
After hearing the submissions made by Avindra Rodrigo Counsel for the Plaintiff owner of the craft, High Court Judge Harsha Sethunge, granted both enjoining orders on 2 June, few minutes prior to the arrival of the said aircraft at the BIA. The aircraft was scheduled to leave Colombo at 12.50 p.m. on the same day on a turnaround flight. The enjoining order issued by Court was served on and conveyed to the Acting Head of Air Navigation Services as directed by Court. The Aeroflot flight SU 289 carrying around 191 passengers scheduled to leave Colombo was stopped a few minutes before its take-off.
Dr.Lasantha Hettiarachchi appearing for Aeroflot informed the Court of the inconvenience caused to the passengers of the flight and sought to vacate the enjoining orders. The Counsel submitted that additional expenses are incurred for each delayed day as a result of having to provide for 191 passengers, however, admitted that the craft is owned by the Plaintiff.
Avindra Rodrigo with Aruna de Silva instructed by F J & G de Saram, appearing for the owner of the aircraft, impressed upon the Court that the dispute between the parties stems purely from a commercial transaction which is to be resolved through arbitration and reliefs are sought in Commercial High Court to preserve the aircraft which is the subject matter of the arbitration.
The Counsel further emphasized that the aircraft is owned by his client and that Aeroflot is operating it without any authorization. The Counsel drew the attention of the Court to alternative flights scheduled between Colombo and Moscow which could be arranged for the passengers of the cancelled flight.
The High Court Judge directed the Defendants to file their objections and any applications formally so that the proper procedure of the Court can be followed in taking this matter forward and decided to hear the matter on June 8, taking into cognizance its urgency.