Sri Lanka's aviation minister, Nimal Siripala, has said that some potential investors in SriLankan Airlines (UL, Colombo International) are looking to withdraw because of negative publicity surrounding the airline, Colombo's Daily FT outlet reported.

"The deadline for the expressions of interest is set for March 5, and in the present scenario, according to the information I received, some of the bidders want to withdraw," he said during a February 26 media conference. "With the negative reputation plaguing the airline, we will not be able to offer it free-of-charge even."

The minister did not elaborate on which, or how many, prospective buyers were looking at walking away.

The government, which owns 99.52% of SriLankan, has begun the process to sell a majority stake. The airline is among many state-owned entities the government is putting up for sale. Sitting next to SriLankan Airlines Chairman Ashok Pathirage, Siripala expressed frustration with the airline's management, its recruitment processes, and employee resistance to privatisation, particularly at the airline's profitable ground handling unit.

“It is the government’s mistake to give the ground handling to the airline," he said. "We cannot run an airline with disruptive employees. This is a critical moment for SriLankan Airlines."

The minister's ire may have been triggered by recent "unplanned operational challenges" at Colombo Airport which disrupted the travel plans of thousands and forced SriLankan Airlines to make a public apology.

However, in what became something of a tit-for-tat session, Siripala said many of the problems at the airline could be sheeted home to the government. He said the airline had recently contracted to lease three A320s and was in talks to secure six A330s by the end of the year, but Pathirage said government red tape made procuring aircraft more difficult.

"The government procurement processes are time-consuming and the global demand for aircraft is escalating," he said. "This has been a significant factor contributing to delays in securing additional aircraft.

ch-aviation fleets data indicates that SriLankan Airlines has 26 aircraft in its fleet, but nine of them - two A320-200s, one A320-200N, one A321-200, three A321-200Ns, one A330-200, and one A330-300 - are out of service.

Sri Lankan CEO Richard Nuttall recently said several aircraft were due to return to their owners soon, and sourcing replacement aircraft was difficult. Adding to the mix are the Pratt & Whitney engine issues impacting some of its Airbus narrowbodies. "We have a problem keeping our existing fleet in the air because we can't get engines," he said. "When we have an aircraft with a problem, we can't get spares because they don't exist. If you want to grow, it's very difficult. Everybody is looking for aircraft."