Jaffna Airport: a success story | Sunday Observer

Jaffna Airport: a success story

11 June, 2023

It was reported recently that Alliance Air, a subsidiary of Tata-owned Air India, has completed 100 passenger flights to the Jaffna International Airport (IATA Code JAF) from Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Alliance Air began flights to Jaffna just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and revived the flight only recently. This is a laudable achievement that cements Jaffna’s place as a regional gateway.

Before both Mattala and Jaffna came online, there was a great debate on which city is suitable for Sri Lanka’s second international airport. The first choice for most aviation experts was Jaffna, which has a “catchment area” of a base population which can afford to travel internationally. The second choice was Hingurakgoda, which is almost the geographical centre of the country. This proposal has again been revived by Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva.

Unfortunately, political compulsions led to the construction of an international airport in Mattala (IATA Code HRI), which no one really recommended for building such a facility. This airport welcomes only a very few flights per week, if at all. Many aviation experts believe that the funds used for Mattala should have been diverted to the expansion of the Jaffna Airport in Palaly, which became a civilian airport only a few years ago.

The Jaffna airport has been upgraded with Indian assistance, but it has a long way to go before it can become a truly international hub like the Bandaranaike International Airport (IATA Code CMB) in Katunayake. The aviation authorities must prioritise extending the runway to around 3,200 metres, which will enable the airport to handle narrow body regional jets such as the Airbus A320/321 and the Boeing 737 Max. Right now, only turboprops such as the 72-passenger ATR 72-600 (the type operated by Alliance Air) can land and take off from the Jaffna International Airport. If the runway is extended, many more destinations even beyond India, such as Dubai, Doha and Singapore, will be reachable from Jaffna. Of course, the airport should have a modern passenger terminal with all creature comforts and public transport links to Jaffna and other Northern towns.

Batticaloa, which was also upgraded recently as an international airport (IATA Code BTC), also has the potential to reach the same level as Jaffna. The gateway to the Eastern region of the country, with many tourist attractions, Batticaloa too should be marketed as a destination for Indian airlines.

Again, at 1,560 metres, the runway is too short for jets, but extending it to 2,000 metres will enable the airport to serve bigger turboprops and smaller jets such as the Airbus A220.

This still leaves the question of Mattala hanging in the air, literally. The authorities should try to attract more charter airlines to Mattala, given the slew of new hotels in the South, not to mention top attractions such as Yala. It could also be turned into a full-fledged MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) facility for aircraft and used as a storage area for aircraft that airlines wish to keep in storage for any reason. In fact, many airlines are still keeping giant Airbus A380s, which mostly went out of circulation during the pandemic, in such storage sites.

Ratmalana (IATA Code RML) used to be Sri Lanka’s former international airport. However, it cannot accommodate larger jets as the runway is only around 1,800 metres long. There is already a 2018-2030 master plan for the airport, under which runway expansion should be considered. There was a plan to extend the runway to where the Galle Road now lies by building an underpass for the traffic, but this being a residential area, that plan may not be very viable. But every large city in the world has two airports and as BIA reaches capacity levels with increased tourist arrivals, more airlines would prefer to start services to Ratmalana as well. Naturally, Ratmalana does have a huge catchment area for overseas travel.

Sri Lanka needs a strong, scheduled domestic airline service to boost business and tourism. Both SriLankan Airlines and Fits Air should consider ATRs and smaller jets for domestic Point-to-Point services and authorities should also ponder whether foreign carriers should be given domestic “Fifth Freedom” rights, for example on the Jaffna-Colombo leg of a Chennai-Jaffna-Colombo flight.

Finally, it is heartening to see that the BIA expansion project is taking shape again. With that, we need to attract more top airlines such as Air France, KLM, British Airways, Japan Airlines, QANTAS, Lufthansa, ITA, Ethiopian, and Jetstar to Colombo to give a wider choice to local travellers and to increase the number of inbound seats for tourists. The Airport and Aviation Services company and the BIA should participate in worldwide “route fairs” to attract new airlines to Colombo and the other airports. Incentives and concessions (on landing fees and so on) should be provided for such airlines, at least for the first year of operations. Sri Lanka should aspire to become a regional, even global, aviation hub as it looks forward to 2048 under President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visionary development plan.


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