November 21, 2023
COLOMBO – President Ranil Wickremesinghe has announced in his budget speech that he has allocated Rs 2 billion to construct another international airport at Hingurakgoda (Minneriya).
We already have ‘International Airports’ at Ratmalana, Jaffna/Palaly (KKS), Mattala, Batticaloa and Katunayake. In fact, in the North, South, East and West of the island. BIA-Katunayake is the only International Airport that has been operating at close to its maximum capacity. The others are ‘White Elephants’, maintained at tremendous cost to the taxpayer. According to the Minister of Aviation, Mattala – described as ‘The loneliest airport in the world’ – is costing Rs.10 million a month to operate.
Does having so many ‘International’ airports make sense in an island nation like ours? Assuming that all these international airports were active, what sort of problems could we expect to contend with in terms of CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine)? For instance, in case of another pandemic on the scale of Covid-19 we would be hard-pressed to pay the cost of trying to contain it. Obviously, we need less points of entry for international passengers.
The President should be aware that an Aviation Policy was passed in Parliament in 2017. Today it remains nothing more than a fairy tale. As usual, all governments are clever at laying down policy, but sadly fail when it comes to implementation. In accordance with the Aviation Policy, I believe the best solution is to construct a second runway at BIA after perhaps relocating the Sri Lanka Air Force to Hingurakgoda. (The SLAF has another western SLAF base at Ratmalana anyway.)
So why not use some of the money allocated for Defence? Statistics show that there are only two or three days a year when bad weather forces aircraft to divert from BIA to other airports. Therefore, with a second runway at BIA, airlines can legally bring less diversion fuel on good weather days, catering only for runway obstructions. This will be cheaper for all airlines including the national carrier, because extra fuel means more weight and the aircraft burns more fuel to carry fuel!
The next logical step is for the authorities to establish and promote domestic air links, run by the private sector, to the many airports and airstrips in the country (a total of 16). There are several water-dromes too. The Aviation Policy 2017 speaks of multi-modal transportation (road and rail) from those airports to the nearest city/village. Not many know that there are airports already existing all over the island. I have flown to all of them: Jaffna (KKS), Iranamadu, Thalladi (Mannar), Vavuniya, Anuradhapura, China Bay (Trincomalee), Sigiriya, Puttalam (Palavi), Hingurakgoda (Minneriya), Ratmalana, Katukurunda, Koggala, Mattala, Weerawila, Ampara and Batticaloa. (See map)
All these airports, except for Thalladi and the water-dromes, carry a four-letter International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) identifier, so it should be relatively painless obtaining the International Air Transport Association (IATA) three-letter identifier for these airports for commercial ticketing purposes. Tickets could then be sold for flights from any international departure point directly to any other destination in Sri Lanka. That will be a boon to the tourism industry.