Mattala - Runway to economic resurgence
Sri Lanka may be an island, but it is a fairly big one. Some road
journeys within the country do take around 12 hours, even on good roads.
It is therefore perplexing as to why we had only one international
airport until now.
The Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake (which replaced
the Ratmalana Airport for international flights) was Sri Lanka’s only
gateway to the outside world. This picture will change from today, with
the grand opening of the US$ 210 m Mattala Rajapaksa International
Airport (MRIA, three-letter IATA airport code HRI) in the deep South. It
will fulfill the long-felt need for a second international airport for
Sri Lanka. Although the airport will primarily serve an international
role, it will also host domestic flights and domestic legs (BIA-MRIA) of
Why do we need a second International Airport ? With the expansion of
travel, tourism and labour migration in Asia, airlines are seeking new
routes to tap the potential of the increasing market. Several foreign
airlines including Air Arabia and Flydubai will begin flights to and
from Mattala this week in view of this objective. It will also mean an
additional source of income for SriLankan and Mihin, the two local
carriers which are also starting flights from Mattala.
With the rise in tourism, Sri Lanka faces the problem of a shortage
of inbound seats, even as several new airlines have commenced flights to
Sri Lanka and some veterans such as British Airways have returned.
Direct flights to Mattala will mean more seats - and easy access to the
South for tourists who want to avoid the rush in Colombo.
Planes are also getting bigger. The double decker Airbus A380, with a
wingspan of 80 metres and a length of 73 metres, is a behemoth by any
stretch of the imagination. Not every airport even in the developed
world can accommodate an A380 - the BIA’s dimensions are simply not
adequate to land an A380. Several airlines are already flying the A380,
including Singapore Airlines (launch customer of A380), British Airways,
China Southern, Thai Airways, Emirates, Korean Air and Qantas. As demand
increases for seats into Sri Lanka, these airlines, many of which fly to
Sri Lanka, may want to start Sri Lanka services using the A380.
Fortunately, Mattala was built from the ground up to handle the Airbus
A380. The 3,700 metre long and 60 metre wide runway can easily
accommodate a fully-laden A380. MRIA officials have already evinced
interest from Airbus A380 operators who may seek a passenger or
technical stopover on sectors such as Dubai-Sydney.
Another compelling reason for a second international airport is an
unforeseen emergency. When terrorists attacked the BIA on July 24, 2001,
all incoming planes had to be diverted to airports in India and Maldives
which inconvenienced both airlines and passengers. I was at the airport
when the attack happened, waiting for a flight to Berlin.
I could not make it to Berlin on time and had to abandon my plans.
Had another international airport existed in Sri Lanka back then, both
incoming and departing passengers would have benefitted, since aircraft
would have been able to divert their flights to the alternative airport.
Now, if there is an emergency, adverse weather condition or an urgent
major repair at the BIA, all aircraft can be diverted to MRIA. Of
course, it works the other way around as well.
The domestic airline industry has literally taken off since 2009 when
most security restrictions were lifted, with several State-owned and
private operators offering a range of flights to major domestic
destinations. They will now be able to offer flights to and from Mattala
as well, which will be convenient for visitors to the Southern, Uva and
Eastern provinces. There will also be convenient BIA-MRIA air
connections by helicopter and small aircraft for those who wish to
travel between the two airports for transit purposes. The Air Force Heli
Tours is already planning such a service.
Mattala could be especially attractive to charter aircraft operators,
who will be able to offer direct flights to an area close to several
wildlife sanctuaries. They would be able to save hours spent on a road
journey and even a room night in Colombo because Southern and Eastern
hotels are easily accessible from Mattala. There is indeed a possibility
that some tourists would opt to spend their entire stay in the Southern
region without visiting Colombo and depart from Mattala.
An airport is not only a gateway for passengers, though the MRIA will
eventually be able to handle five million passengers per year. In this
fast-moving world, airfreight has become crucial for most companies to
get their products, especially perishables, across to the rest of the
world. Ocean vessels are simply too slow for these businesses.
Hence the rising demand worldwide for air cargo, with many carriers
having specialized cargo planes to move goods from one continent to
another. Mattala, with its proximity to the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa
International Port (just 20 minutes away by road), could be an ideal
cargo hub. It could also become a hub for the major courier companies
who are looking to expand in the Asia Pacific region. Mattala can
already handle 45,000 MT of cargo per year, with a ceiling of 150,000 MT
when all stages are completed.
Aircraft are constantly in the air, with a very little time on the
ground to maximize profits and turnaround times. However, this also
means that they should be subject to thorough safety and maintenance
checks periodically as mandated by the International Air Transport
Association (IATA), the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)
and the manufacturers themselves (Airbus and Boeing). There is a rising
demand for Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities for
aircraft worldwide. SriLankan is planning to build an extensive MRO
complex at Mattala in collaboration with Lufthansa, which will bring in
additional revenue and cement Mattala’s reputation as a MRO centre. A
series of other industrial ventures will also begin close to the airport
to take advantage of its transport hub status.
Training is another aspect of aviation that could benefit from MRIA.
There is very little room for more pilot training facilities at both BIA
and Ratmalana. This is where MRIA, which has plenty of room for
expansion, comes in (2,000 acres allocated, 1,200 hectares possible for
expansion). Several private sector companies have already formulated
plans to open flying schools at MRIA. Airlines are facing a pilot
shortage for which the only answer is the training of more pilots for
which Mattala provides an ideal environment.
The airport will also lead to the rapid development of the area,
especially in tandem with the Southern Expressway link from Colombo
which should be ready by next year. The expressway will also be a boon
to those who have to ‘shuttle’ from MRIA to BIA (or vice versa) to catch
a flight. The airport is already served by access roads from several
nearby towns, which in turn are linked to Uva, Southern, Eastern and
The Chinese-funded project is one of the biggest development projects
undertaken in Sri Lanka. Although the initial site for the airport was
Weerawila (where a small domestic airport already exists), it was
shifted to Mattala due to environmental concerns. Construction began in
2008 and the major civil works were over by end last year. These include
the installation of latest safety and navigational equipment and a
state-of-the-art control tower.
Aviation is booming especially in Asia and more airports are needed
as transit hubs to facilitate the movement of millions of passengers.
Mattala will have a major role to play in this regard once more airlines
come into Sri Lanka. Today’s opening will thus mark a new beginning for
the aviation industry in Sri Lanka.
Pictures by Sulochana Gamage