Boost for domestic aviation | Daily News

Boost for domestic aviation

If you take a cursory glance at most major cities in the world, one thing stands out: they are transport hubs with at least two international airports. From Dubai to Istanbul, many cities have two airports while cities such as Moscow and London have four or more airports.

Sri Lanka’s main (and to all intents and purposes the only) international airport is the Bandaranaike International (BIA, IATA Code CMB), which was opened in the late 1960s. The other “international” airport at Mattala is largely non-functional, after the withdrawal of the last international carrier (Flydubai) which called there. That leaves us with the rather interesting option of Ratmalana, which goes by the IATA Code RML.

Ratmalana, a former RAF base, was in fact the country’s sole international airport until the BIA was commissioned. But as bigger jets such as the Boeing 747-400 entered service, Ratmalana did not have the runway length (just 1,800 metres) or the facilities to accommodate them. Hence the decision to move all commercial jet operations to BIA.

But one cannot undermine one simple fact – Ratmalana is just 15 Km away from Colombo, whereas the BIA is 35 Km away, though the Katunayake Expressway has reduced travel times. With the BIA bursting at the seams, attention has once again shifted to Ratmalana – and to the question whether at least some international operations can resume there. True, the BIA is undergoing a massive expansion that will enable it to process more than 15 million passengers per year, but given the exponential growth in tourism and the rising demand from airlines even this may not be enough.

It is in this context we welcome the good news that the Ratmalana Airport is poised to undergo a major expansion. According to Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Government has received an additional 25 acres of land in the Ratmalana airport from the Sri Lanka Air Force, which had facilities adjacent to the civilian airport. But even this step will not fully solve the problem of helping the private entrepreneurs who want to come into the Ratmalana Airport to commence aviation related businesses. The Government is also installing the latest navigation equipment at a cost of Rs.1 billion.

These are commendable steps, but the authorities should also explore the possibility of extending the runway to accommodate short and medium range jets that can fly to domestic and regional destinations from Ratmalana. Actually, even the present runway can accommodate 100 seater commercial jetliners like the Bombardier CS100. There was talk of creating an underpass to replace the Galle Road near the airport and extending the runway, but we do not know what happened to this plan. Another obstacle is that unlike the BIA Ratmalana Airport is located in a heavily built up residential area subject to noise regulations. Most airports get around this by prohibiting night operations, but there is another option - a total “no” to the bigger jets (business jets, currently the bread and butter of RML, should have no problem) and permitting only regional turboprops such as the Q400 and ATR 72 to operate. One prime example for this arrangement is the Billy Bishop International Airport in the heart of Toronto, Canada. With a maximum range of around 2,000 Km, these planes are ideal for regional and domestic operations.

As one of the leading tourism destinations, Sri Lanka should have a much better domestic flight network. Right now, there are only a very few companies in this business, which enjoy a virtual monopoly or duopoly. However, the Government has since opened up the sector and more companies have expressed a willingness to begin domestic flights. There should be a much bigger selection of cheaper domestic flights to choose from. This will be a major impetus for tourism and investment. In fact, even developing countries much smaller (and poorer) than Sri Lanka have vastly superior domestic flight networks. Since these countries are our tourism and investment competitors, we must catch up without delay.

This cannot be accomplished without an equally good domestic airport network. There should be domestic connecting flights from the BIA and Ratmalana that should take the lead in all other domestic operations. The Batticaloa airport has now been converted to a fully-fledged civilian airport and Hingurakgoda, Palali and many other airports are in the process of being transformed into completely civil international standard airports. This is a step in the right direction. We also need more flying schools given the projected pilot shortage in the next few decades. Mattala cannot be allowed to lie idle – it should be equipped with world-class MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) facilities to attract regional airliners for their repair needs.

The country is entering a new era of development and in view of the large tourist influx and the inflow of investors, the aviation industry needs to flourish. As the Transport Minister points out, internal flight services, airports and allied services must undergo rapid development to meet these objectives. A robust aviation industry is essential for the country’s development over the next few decades.


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