Government Agency Advised Against Siting Second Airport At Mattala Before Its Construction Started

The Strategic Enterprises Management Agency (SEMA) advised the government against its planned siting of an international airport in Mattala, recommending instead upgrades to an airfield in Puttalam to serve as an emergency landing strip

The Strategic Enterprises Management Agency (SEMA), an agency overlooking governance at state-owned enterprises and reporting to the president, advised against the costly international airport at Mattala. They recommended expansion at the Bandaranayake International Airport and cost-effective upgrades to an existing airstrip in Puttlam instead. All this was overridden by the then government, a senior officer who served at SEMA at the time tells Echelon.

The $210 million Chinese loan-funded Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MIA) in the south of Sri Lanka, 250km from Colombo, has failed to take off since coming into full operation in 2013. Mattala handled 2,984 aircraft and 63,717 passengers serviced by 23 international airlines in 2014. By 2015, traffic grounded to just one daily flight. Even the national carrier SriLankan Airlines suspended flights to the airport because it burned more than jet fuel every time it flew there. In 2008, a year before construction of the Mattala airport began, SEMA prepared a report on the feasibility of turning Sri Lanka into an aviation hub.

Echelon saw the presentation slides based on this report that were shown to the then aviation ministry. It details what needed to be done to achieve hub status—from expanding facilities at the main airport and developing an emergency landing site to end the ground-handling monopoly of government-controlled carrier Sri Lankan Airlines—and includes these words: ‘Is a second airport needed (to achieve aviation hub status)?’ The answer, which went ignored, was ‘No!’.

“There was never a business case for a second international airport,” said the SEMA official, asking that his name be withheld. The main airport BIA was adequate to handle Sri Lanka’s growing air traffic volumes, provided expansion took place on time. SEMA forecasts annual passenger traffic at the main airport BIA will reach 13 million by 2025 from 4 million in 2004. The main airport has an annual capacity to handle six million passengers and is now stressed handling a growing number from 7.8 million passengers in 2014. The BIA could meet forecast demand as long it expanded its terminals, and widened its runway from 45m to 60m to be able to accommodate bigger planes like Airbus’ A380s and Boeing’s 747, which cannot land here now. The main airport also needed a second runway. Its single runway handling 25 moves per hour (13 take-offs and 12 landings) is not enough for the kind of traffic expected in 2025. SriLankan Airlines’ monopoly in ground handling must be broken to bring down costs to attract more airline services.

SEMA highlighted the need to have an alternate location to redirect flights that cannot land in Katunayake due to bad weather, a major change in schedule or emergencies. They proposed Puttalam in the North-West, 100km from the main airport, half the distance between BIA and Mattala. SEMA proposed Trincomalee and Hambantota as alternate sites for an emergency airstrip too, not fully-fledged international airports, but Puttalam was its pick.

Puttalam already had a runway at Palaviya built by former colonial rulers, the British. SEMA estimated a cost of $40 million to reconstruct the runway, and add a terminal and other basic facilities on par with global aviation standards.

There was a lot more going for Puttalam. It was close to three districts with the highest populations in the country, Colombo, Gampaha and Kurunagala. Existing road and rail networks would connect the Puttalam airstrip to free trade zones in the western, northern and eastern provinces; cultural zones in Anuradhapura and Kandy; and a proposed tourism hotspot in Kalpitiya in the north-west and Trincomalee in the east. The then yet-to-be-completed Colombo-Katunayake Expressway could be extended to Puttalam, cutting commute time between the two airports to under an hour, enabling greater synergies between the two, something not there with Mattala 300km away. The shortest route between the main airport and Mattala via the Southern Expressway takes a little more than two hours. Weather patterns were looked at too. Flights are diverted from Colombo because of heavy rains or mist. Puttalam, located in the dry zone, doesn’t have these problems.

The project would have been soft on the environment too. The existing runway meant there was no forest to clear. Wind patterns showed Puttalam already had a ‘hot air corridor’. A hot air corridor is created in the upper atmosphere by the constant burning of jet fuel, and Puttalam is located on an established flight path of airlines on the Colombo (BIA) route. This meant migratory bird life will not be disrupted and the birds will not threaten to bring down any planes because they already stayed clear. Aviation ministry officials, after hearing the presentation, wanted Puttalam struck off the report and more research done on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home district Hambantota.

Hambantota had some plus points – it was located in the dry zone and free from the vagaries of Colombo weather. If the airport was built close to the sea port, an opportunity presented itself to develop air-sea logistic operations. To the agency, however, poor road and rail connectivity with the rest of the island was unappealing: it was too far from major tourism destinations and industrial zones. Officials at SEMA waited for meetings that never came with the cabinet and the president, hoping to give their Puttalam idea a fighting chance. What came instead was instruction never to talk about Puttalam again.

Later, the decision to build the airport in Mattala, 30km away from the Hambantota port, would baffle the agency. The distance between the sea and air ports killed synergies because of high land transportation costs, and just like that the air-sea logistics dream died. “We did all the hard work to prepare the report, but it was all for nothing. We could have avoided the messy situation the airport and the country is in today,” the ex-SEMA official said.

Sri Lanka ended up with a costly airport that is not making money. The airport made a Rs3.3 billion loss in 2014, down slightly from Rs3.5 billion a year earlier, and 2015 numbers will likely show an airport painted in red. It employs a little more than 500 people to handle just one daily flight serviced by Flydubai and emergency landings from the main airport at Katunayake, 300km away, earlier redirected to Chennai in India or the Maldives. The airport’s single 12,000sq.m terminal and one million squarefoot duty free shopping area are mostly deserted. The idle airport’s cargo bays recently doubled as a warehouse for a bumper rice harvest.

Many trees and shrubs fell to the Mattala airport, 2,000 acres of them. The site was a designated Elephant Management Area that the government chose to ignore, and today, the main road leading to the airport is constantly invaded by wandering pachyderms. Herds of deer and water buffalo encroach into the almost deserted airport compound and the army is on alert to drive out these invaders. The airport is also smack in the middle of the migratory path of birds that breed and nest in the Kumana sanctuary located further north. The first plane to land at Mattala shattered its windshield when a bird flew into it and another plane was grounded when a peacock flew into one of its engines.

Corrected Mattala airport’s financial results for 2013 and 2014