Kick-starting Mattala Airport

By Sarah Hannan

The recommencement of full airport services at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) is scheduled to take place in several stages with flight operations billed to commence from the end of April 2020, the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation informed The Sunday Morning.

The MRIA, in recent times, has been used for flights that were diverted from Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) due to adverse weather conditions. Apart from that, the previous Government had also repurposed the facilities of MRIA to store paddy.

Recommencing the airport facilities at Mattala has become a top priority of the present Government. With President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assuring that no partnerships will be sought to restore the facilities, the responsibility was passed on to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd. (AASL), and the Ministry of Tourism and Aviation.

Minister of Tourism and Aviation Prasanna Ranatunga earlier this month instructed officials of said bodies to assess the extent of the damage after flight operations halted in 2018.

“The aviation service (AASL) officials are yet to present the observations and assessment of damages to the Ministry. Discussions are also underway with several international flight operators from the region, especially in Dubai, India, and the Maldives, to commence flight operations,” Ranatunga explained.

Incentives on offer

AASL Chairman Maj. Gen. (Retd.) G.A. Chandrasiri earlier this week said that the AASL will offer incentives to budget airlines to fly to Ratmalana International Airport and, once operations commence, to MRIA too. Interested airlines will be offered subsidised air handling and fuel charges at the airports.

Chandrasiri also stated that the AASL is looking at providing incentives to domestic airlines to begin new ventures using Ratmalana or Mattala as a hub.

However, in order to kick-start the operations at MRIA, the Ministry is expecting SriLankan Airlines to start scheduling flights, so that international flight operators could follow suit. Moreover, the top priority is to attend to the repairs of the facility that are required due to the effects of negligence over the past five years.

Additional facilities

In addition, the Ministry has invited the SriLankan Airlines Aircraft Engineers’ Association to consider the possibility of establishing an MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul) unit at Mattala. In response, the association has submitted a project proposal to the Ministry.

“Once we receive the damage assessment reports, we will look at presenting a cabinet paper to allocate funds to repair the damages. While some facilities would have minor repairs, there can be requirements to replace equipment, and for that we will need to allocate a considerable budget. We will consult the President and Prime Minister to seek approval for the same,” Ranatunga elaborated.

“We are also looking at opening a free trade zone in Mattala and connecting it to the airport, which will improve the air freight services of the South,” the Minister added.

Keeping wildlife at bay

While the operational and administrative issues of the airport are now looked into, the biggest concern that environmentalists have raised time and time again is that MRIA is located in an area which is surrounded by national parks and a bird sanctuary (Kumana National Park).

According to environmentalists, the airport also sits amidst the flight path of migratory birds. Even at the onset of MRIA’s operations, there were several encounters with birds and other wild animals.

When inquired about the steps that the Ministry is taking to tackle the wildlife density of the area, Ranatunga stated: “Several stakeholders are working together to recommence the operations of this airport and we are awaiting their proposals on measures that can be taken to tackle the wildlife density in the area as well.”

In 2013, a petition titled “Stop the process of destroying sources of the wildlife in Mattala”, the petitioners had alleged that the incumbent Government at the time was planning to destroy water resources and feeding areas around the airport, raising concerns of a severe impact on the indigenous and migratory bird population.

They also pointed out that it would aggravate the human-elephant conflict with elephants being driven out of their natural habitats, thereby resorting to venture into nearby villages and farms to feed.