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CONQURERING THE SKY - Daily News Special supplement to mark the opening of Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Hambantota | dailynews.lk

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 international flights.

Necessity

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.

Unforeseen emergency

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.

Wildlife sanctuaries

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.

Safety

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 Sabaragamuwa provinces.

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

 

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