A flying start | Daily News

A flying start

For all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka has only one international airport – the Bandaranaike International Airport (IATA Code CMB) at Katunayake. The other ‘international’ airport at Mattala in the Southern Province lies empty, with the last international airline that used to call there – Flydubai – having pulled out sometime ago. Flight data indicate that the ‘interim’ Government appointed on October 26, 2018 revived at least one SriLankan Airlines flight to Mattala (IATA Code HRI), but we have no idea whether this still continues. But the crux of the matter is that Mattala has become the “world’s emptiest airport” as one international magazine put it.

Mattala was an exercise in futility, fuelled by the desire of one man to carve his name on the international aviation map. However, even before the first sod of soil was cut, there were signs that Mattala was never going to work. First, it is located in an area with little tourism and physical infrastructure. Second, the airport does not have a real raison d'être - there is no catchment area for ethnic traffic. In other words, most people in this and the neighbouring provinces are economically not in a position to travel abroad. When they actually built it at a cost of US$ 200 million, it was an ecological disaster that saw thousands of acres of virgin jungle being cleared and worse, the wrong runway orientation forced planes to ensure 30-not crosswinds. There is also no parallel taxiway for the jets to enter the runway without doing a 180-turn at the end.

Mattala protagonists say the country needed a second international airport. It certainly does, but not at Mattala which is just 260 Km away from Colombo and 20 minutes by air, including take off and landing. Before even thinking about a second international airport, the best option would have been building a second runway at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) to increase its handling capacity or even contemplate expanding the Ratmalana Airport to handle smaller jets such as the Airbus A320. The Mattala investment could have been channeled to these causes.

Even though Mattala is firmly out of the equation, the country does need a second international airport – one which can actually compel airlines to start flying there. We have argued in these spaces earlier that the best candidate for a second international airport in Sri Lanka is Palali in the Jaffna peninsula. There are many advantages of having an international airport in Palali (IATA Code JAF) – it is over 400 Km away from Colombo (roughly one hour’s flying time), there is a catchment area for ethnic traffic and many Indian airlines are likely to use the airport to link Indian cities such as Chennai, Madurai, Trichy, Kochi, Coimbatore, Bengalaru and Kannur (which has a brand new airport), with or without a stop in Colombo. There will no doubt be a big demand from both State-owned and private Indian carriers, not to mention the leafing Gulf carriers including the Middle East Big 3 (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar) which are always on the lookout for promising new destinations.

We at last have good news in this regard, as the government is to allocate Rs.2 billion to develop the Palali airport runway in Jaffna as an initial step of using it for flight operations to regional destinations, particularly those in India. The Northern Development Ministry is reported to be working out the Cabinet memorandum to be submitted for approval. India has previously offered to modernize the airport. The Sri Lankan government will develop the runway and seek assistance from India to develop to the level of an international airport.

This is a long-felt need and a step in the right direction. When this proposal was brought earlier during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, some of the more communal-minded elements touted the silly notion that an international airport in Jaffna would lead to separatism or outright division of the country. As far as we know, no other country has seen separatism or division simply because an international airport was built in a second city. In fact, exactly the opposite has happened – two airports help the country to attract more foreign visitors and frequent domestic flights between the airports bring the local communities closer together.

In fact, Sri Lanka needs a much better and bigger domestic flight network – at the moment there are only one or two players who charge exorbitant prices as they have a virtual monopoly. In comparison, one can virtually travel around India by air with the same amount of money. If we develop Palali and open it up for both domestic and international flights, there will be a drastic drop in the Jaffna-Colombo-Jaffna fares. Once its financial situation is stabilized, SriLankan should also consider procuring an airframe such as the Airbus A220 for domestic flights. Moreover, international airlines can even be given fifth freedom rights to carry passengers between Colombo and Jaffna at least during the initial years. The other domestic airports should also be brought under full civilian control and upgraded to handle smaller regional jets to make full use of our airports.


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Palali Airport with a Freeway to Colombo is certainly a better option to pursue. All politicians motive is to carve their name on the Foundation Stone wit a pompous ceremony. These politicians are stupid and ignore the basic scientific principles and bypass professionals, environmental impact and feasibility studies etc..There should be a legal clause to the effect that if a Politician makes an order to override an engineering feasibility report, the politician can be sued for damages and compensation.

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