A paradigm shift in airport and port development | Sunday Observer

A paradigm shift in airport and port development

27 August, 2023

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer, the Minister of Ports, Shipping, and Aviation, Nimal Siripala De Silva, reaches into the heart of controversies and aspirations within Sri Lanka’s aviation and port sectors.

Amidst allegations of obstruction and claims of corruption, Minister De Silva addresses these contentious matters head-on, shedding light on the ongoing investigations and his stance.

But the conversation doesn’t stop there. From the ambitious expansion of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) to the audacious proposition of a new international airport, Minister De Silva unveils his initiatives and challenges encountered along the way.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: State Minister of Ports, Shipping, and Aviation Premalal Jayasekara has accused you of obstructing him from carrying out his duties and he states that he will expose corruption in the Ministry with documents. What is your stance on this?

A: I am not in a position to comment on this matter as it is currently under investigation. I have engaged directly with President Ranil Wickremesinghe and have urged a thorough investigation into the claims being made against me. Until the allegations are substantiated, I am unable to provide a comprehensive response.

Q: Moving to your Ministry, how is the progress of the BIA expansion project?

A: The BIA expansion project holds significant promise for our country’s aviation sector. However, its advancement has faced certain hurdles that require clarification. At present, we are awaiting approval from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a pivotal partner in this endeavour.

The project encountered a setback when the Government declared Sri Lanka as bankrupt. This declaration led to JICA’s decision to suspend the loan agreement. According to their regulations, lending to financially bankrupt countries is not feasible. Discussions with both the Japanese Embassy and JICA have provided insights into the conditions for resuming this project.

We have been informed that upon the completion of the debt restructuring process and subsequent approval from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the suspension on the loan agreement will be lifted.

This will pave the way for the resumption of funds and allow the construction to proceed. It is important to note that a significant portion of the project has already been completed, and our immediate focus is to safeguard this progress.

To ensure the protection of the constructed segments, we have allocated Rs.500 million from the Airport and Aviation Services Limited (AASL) budget. This allocation will facilitate the completion of the ongoing work, which is estimated to take approximately three more months. By doing so, we aim to secure the infrastructure that has already been established.

Throughout this process, the support of JICA and the Japanese Government has been pivotal. During a recent visit by President Wickremesinghe to Japan, they indicated their keen interest in continuing the project. However, the main impediment remains the necessity to await the completion of the debt restructuring process and the subsequent IMF approval.

If JICA’s assistance faces constraints even after these prerequisites are met, we are prepared with alternative plans. Several investors have expressed a strong desire to invest in the terminal’s expansion. While we consider all options, it is essential to recognise that the genesis of this project was rooted in collaboration with Japan. Therefore, our commitment to honouring this partnership is unwavering.

Q: How is the progress of the Jaffna and Batticaloa airport projects?

A: Positive developments have been witnessed in the Jaffna airport project, marking a shift from losses to operational profit. Previously, Palali airport hosted four flights, a number now increased to daily flights. Discussions with IndiGo Airlines to introduce flights from Chennai to Palali are underway.

The aim is to secure two additional daily flights, ensuring the airport’s financial viability. To accommodate larger aircraft like the Airbus A320, plans to extend the runway are in motion.

However, challenges arise as the current airport size only permits smaller (ATR) aircraft, carrying around 75 passengers. Addressing these obstacles is a priority, including the issue of passenger baggage.

Expanding the airport presents a dual challenge. It involves acquiring land owned by the residents of Jaffna, requiring cooperation and understanding. Negotiations with political leaders and TNA MPs are aimed at a peaceful resolution that benefits all parties involved.

Moving to Batticaloa, the airport primarily serves flying schools. Given the absence of domestic airlines connecting key locations like Ratmalana, BIA, and Palali, efforts are directed towards attracting India’s Alliance Airlines for flights between Chennai, Palali, and Batticaloa.

Similarly, proposals have been extended to domestic airlines such as FitsAir for internal flights, linking Mattala, Ratmalana, Batticaloa, and Palali. These endeavours are geared to capitalise on the increasing influx of tourists, especially high-end travellers. As the tourism landscape evolves, the viability of domestic airlines is poised to grow.

Q: Are you trying to get more international airlines to come to BIA, Ratmalana and Jaffna?

A: Certainly, our efforts to attract international airlines have yielded promising results. Collaborations have been established with various airlines including Mahan Air from Iran, Arkia Airlines of Israel, and Turkish Airlines. Negotiations are ongoing with Uzbekistan and several other nations. These endeavors are poised to enhance air connectivity, with operations anticipated to commence during the peak tourist season from November onward.

Q: Mattala is often criticised, but is there a possibility of developing it as an MRO and flight training hub?

A: Progress is being made in the development plans for Mattala Airport. We have initiated a call for expression of interest for Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) services, and have engaged with five interested parties. Anticipating negotiations, our goal is to establish these operations within the next five to six months.

Concurrently, our strategy involves steering more flights toward Mattala Airport. We are already witnessing Russian and charter flights utilising the facility, and with an uptick in charter flights, the airport’s viability is set to improve.

Despite facing financial challenges, Mattala Airport’s significance remains substantial. It serves as an alternate landing spot for emergencies, and its capability to accommodate large aircraft like the Boeing 777 makes it an invaluable asset.

The airport’s strategic location enables swift diversion in case of issues at BIA, minimising disruptions and reducing additional costs for airlines.

While the financial gains might not be immediate, the presence of a secondary airport offers international airlines assurance and elevates Sri Lanka’s air transportation standards.

Q: How closely are you working with the tourism ministry?

A: We maintain close collaboration not only with the Tourism Ministry but also with the Ministry of Foreign Employment. Regular exchanges of information, developmental plans, and strategies are common between us. However, a current challenge we face at the airport is congestion. Despite reduced inbound flights during the Covid period, our numbers have now surged to pre-pandemic levels. This trend is expected to continue, with further increases anticipated by December.

As Terminal 2 is not yet operational, we are encountering congestion issues. To manage this situation, we are establishing a temporary prefab terminal.

This temporary solution will alleviate congestion and can eventually serve as a hub for both domestic and budget airlines in the future.

Q: How about automation and e-gate development projects at BIA? What is the progress?

A: Noteworthy strides are being made in the realm of airport automation and e-gate development. A pivotal pilot project is already in motion, with contractors selected through a transparent procedure. The objective is to install four e-gates by December this year.

However, the effectiveness of these e-gates hinges on a crucial factor: the passport’s electronic nature. While Sri Lankan passports are not yet electronic, progress is on the horizon.

A Cabinet paper forwarded by Minister Tiran Alles has gained approval, paving the way for the issuance of e-passports in the next three months. This significant step will not only alleviate congestion but also streamline immigration procedures.

Q: The Colombo Port is one of the busiest in the world. What are the future plans for Colombo and KKS?

A: The evolution of the Colombo Port from a conventional harbour to a transshipment hub has been significant.

Transshipment, introduced in 1985, involves transferring containers from smaller vessels to larger ones for global distribution.

Currently handling 6.9 million TEUs annually, we aim to reach 7.9 million. With expansion, including the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) and private terminals like Adani’s West Terminal (WCT), we’re enhancing capacity by 2 to 3 million TEUs yearly.

Future ambitions include the North Port Development Program with four to five terminals planned. Kankesanthurai (KKS) has seen substantial investment in infrastructure, yet accommodating larger ships necessitates further development, aided by an Indian concessional loan. In KKS, we’re seeking investors for a public-private partnership for expansion.

The Talaimannar pier has been earmarked for development, with allocated funds and India’s commitment to develop their Danushkodi Port. A passenger boat service between Talaimannar and Danushkodi is on the horizon, part of our forward-looking strategy.

Q: There is a lot of criticism over the Chinese-controlled Hambantota Port. Some analysts have said it might be turned into a Chinese military base. Is there any such possibility?

A: Let me categorically state that such claims are baseless and fuelled by false propaganda. Our agreement with China pertains solely to the establishment and operation of a commercial port.

The notion that the Hambantota Port could be transformed into a military base is entirely unfounded. The terms of our arrangement prohibit any such use and emphasise its role as a commercial entity. Moreover, our own Navy maintains a strong presence in the vicinity, further negating the possibility of any unauthorised activities. It is crucial to separate fact from fiction and not be swayed by misleading narratives that lack substantial evidence.

Q: Turning to politics, have you decided on whom to support at the next Presidential Election next year? Is it the incumbent President or someone else?

A: Currently, I am aligned with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), having successfully resolved legal matters that reinstated our positions within the party. As part of the SLFP, our collective stance is intact. While we belong to the SLFP, decisions regarding our election strategy will be influenced by evolving political dynamics and ground realities. It is a matter that requires careful evaluation as circumstances unfold. Personally, I acknowledge President Wickremesinghe’s astute leadership and the role he has played in navigating our country’s major challenges following the economic crisis of 2022.

He has proven his competence and leadership in steering our nation through its current challenges. In my estimation, there is no more suitable candidate than him for the task at hand. However, the ultimate decision on this matter lies with the people. Their preference will shape our course of action as we weigh the options and respect their decision.