Established by the Government of Sri Lanka in July, 1979, following the closure of Air Ceylon, Air Lanka initially operated two Boeing 707 jets on lease from Singapore Airlines.
During the 1980s, various destinations were added to the network, and new aircraft were added to the fleet.
In 1990, Air Lanka served 26 destinations.
Two years later, the first Airbus A320 aircraft joined the fleet.
In 1998, Air Lanka was privatized to the Dubai based Emirates Group. Emirates got a 40% stake worth US$70 million, later increased to 43.6% in Air Lanka, and tried to refurbish the airline's image and fleet, abandoning the Air Lanka brand and launching SriLankan Airlines.
In the following two years, six Airbus A330-200s were added to the fleet, and the existing A340s were upgraded to a two-class configuration (Business and Economy Class).
In late July, 2001, a terrorist attack on the Bandaranaike Airport disabled half of SriLankan Airlines' fleet (3 aircraft destroyed, and 3 badly damaged), which had 12 aircraft in use.
In the following years, SriLankan Airlines recovered and continued expanding its operations in the area, becoming the largest foreign air carrier flying to India, with 100 weekly flights to 11 destinations.
In 2008, the Government of Sri Lanka chose to discontinue the management contract with Emirates Airlines, and the new management managed to push the airline downhill, selling six aircraft in just a year to earn money. When the partnership between the two airlines ended, SriLankan Airlines also ceased to be a partner of Emirates' Skywards frequent flyer program. Consequently, SriLankan Airlines launched FlySmiLes, its own frequent flyer programme.
In 2009, with a wide variety of well-planned initiatives to reduce all types of consumption, and recycle waste products, SriLankan Airlines has moved quickly to turn itself into an environmentally friendly company. On March 21st, SriLankan Airlines Flight UL557 created history in South Asia as the very first ‘Green Flight’ of the region.
In 2010, the Government of Sri Lanka consolidated its hold over the national carrier when it bought Emirates' stake of 43.63% in SriLankan Airlines, thus ending any affiliations SriLankan Airlines and Emirates had with each other.
In 2011, by launching new services to Guangzhou, Kochi, and Moscow, SriLankan Airlines expanded its global route network to 51 destinations in 32 countries. Also, after more than a decade, the airline took delivery of the first brand new A320-200 aircraft straight from Airbus.
In 2012, SriLankan Airlines was announced as Oneworld's latest member-elect. With the acquisition of brand new A320s and the refurbishment of existing A330 and A340 aircraft (incorporating plush leather interior, state-of-the-art IMS Rave entertainment systems and flat bed seats on Business Class), the airlines continued to undertake massive product enhancements.
In June 2013, as part of its long-haul fleet renewal, SriLankan Airlines signed a Memorandum of Understanding for four A350-900s and six A330-300s. This combination of aircraft will allow SriLankan Airlines to offer the highest levels of comfort to their passengers while also benefiting from superior efficiency levels at any time. The first A330-300 aircraft arrived in Colombo at the end of October 2014.
In July, 2013, at the Indian Ocean World Travel Awards 2013, the airline received a special “award of appreciation” in recognition of its services to South Asia’s tourism and hospitality industry. Nominated for the award by the Ministry of Tourism of the Maldives and The Maldives Marketing and PR Corporation, SriLankan Airlines is the largest international airline serving the Maldives with 36 flights per week, facilitating both business and leisure travel sectors.
On the 1st of May 2014, SriLankan Airlines officially became a member of Oneworld, thus being the first carrier from Indian subcontinent to join any global airline alliance.
The only deadly incident involving SriLankan Airlines occurred in early May, 1986, when a bomb planted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam exploded before take off of a a Lockheed L-1011 'Tristar' and killed 21 of the 148 people on board.