Recently I read in the Sunday Times that four Domestic Airports currently under the Airforce management will be handed over to the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL.) This prompted me to write something about airports. The intention is to share what little I know about these matters with my fellow Sri Lankans whose money is what pays for all the decisions that are made, airports and otherwise. Like the time when all roads led to Rome, nowadays all decisions come down from Diyawanna Oya.
There were committees and sub-committees and advice experts and consultants and insultants and all those board-room meetings to make decisions and they ended up with Mattala International storing paddy. I do not know about the commercial viability of an international airport in Hambantota. That is all pure politics. Somebody opened it and somebody else closed it and they both came from Diyawanna Oya and it cost the nation an arm and both legs. One of them has to be wrong? The opener or the closer. Both cannot be right. Well! That too must be politics. But I do know some clown did lay out a runway in Mattala for international big jet aeroplanes to back-track for taxing and execute a 180 degree turn to take-off; unheard of in modern aviation. For the lack of a better word I called it ‘A magnificent Mistake” in a previous article. So much for experts and consultants and stone-deaf decision makers.
Sorry, I side tracked, that Mattala menu is now stale with paddy becoming the main course. Let’s get back to the current topics and say something before the milk gets spilt. Four Domestic Airports, Jaffna, Katukurunda, Sigiriya and Batticaloa are no more with the Airforce and now comes under the CAASL. I really do not know who lords over them, whether it is CAASL or Airport and Aviation Services? Whoever is in charge the sad part is the orders come from Diyawanna Oya where freshly-minted ministers will decide the outcomes simply because they are the Ministers.
The Airforce should first be thanked for maintaining all the Domestic Airports through the conflict years. They did a great job and we have all the Domestic Airports in an operational status. Now that the war is over, it is time to convert some for civilian use. Plans must be made with a vision. Whoever makes the decisions, Ministers or experts, they should consider corporate involvement without grabbing and biting more than they can chew and expect the tax payer to come to the rescue. Jaffna has a clear cut commercial value and Sigiriya and Batticaloa both could be great tourist pit-stops, one for Nuwara Kalaviya and its historical splendour and the other for the high-priced fast-filling east coast beaches. (7 hours by road to the east coast, 45 minutes by plane.) Proper internal flying needs to be established and these valuable domestic airports should be leased to private companies to operate. (Example – Ko Samui Airport in Thailand is managed and operated by Bangkok Air). Katukurunda which currently sees a fair amount of private flying has a 3000 foot runway which was originally constructed by Italian POWs during World War II. The airport is not far from Ratmalana, Katunayake and Koggala, ideal for light aeroplane training exercises. Katukurunda also has good visibility and sensible winds, a perfect place to establish an international flying training school if such be the ambition of someone who has sense.
Diyawanna Oya decides what to do with these airports. That is the bottom line. They have hoards to say ‘yes’ to anything the big bosses propose. But there are professional people working for them who are well qualified and know what they are talking about. Their voices need to be heard and the powers that be should care to listen. That is the answer. Hope I am not pouring water on a duck’s back.
Let’s go now to Katunayake and enlighten the reader a bit more.
The airport originated as a Royal Airforce Base, in 1944 to be precise. That was a time Ratmalana was the international airport. Then due to expansion reasons and the inability of Ratmalana to acquire densely populated land that surrounded the airport, Katunayake was selected to be the international airport of Sri Lanka. Good call by whoever made the decision. The new terminal was constructed and international flights started operating in and out of Katunayake in 1967. Two things had to be kept in mind; airports need to expand and runways need to get longer and wider with larger and heavier new aeroplanes. Also let’s not forget wear and tear of the strip. It has a life span before re-surfacing becomes essential. With these future needs clearly in evidence Katunayake batted on, test cricket style as time was in her favour.
Then came the need for a longer, wider and stronger runway. Aeroplanes were sure getting bigger and heavier. Parallel to the existing landing strip, a new runway was constructed to the north of the old one. 1986 saw the opening of that, 3350 meters long, 45 meters wide, good enough for the biggest aeroplanes in the world. A new lease in life for the airport with 20 years to run before the runway surface needed a face-lift. That would have been 2006 and sure we’ve gone past the mark and overtaken by 10 years. Still the landing strip is good, no doubt, but yet, time is rushing at us for the current runway to be re-surfaced. The problem is such an exercise needs runway closures. That is not easy when we have only one runway as a gateway to the sky?
Another important factor for consideration is the constant declaration I hear about Sri Lanka becoming an International Aviation Hub for the region. Great news but the competition is also brewing in India. Some sea gulls too have been singing that even Male is thinking of a second runway. If an international hub is a vision for Sri Lanka, the second runway is definitely a ‘must’ at Katunayake. The question is where? We got to act fast to beat the competition, there cannot be multiple international hubs in the same area.
Let’s forget the HUB part. The current movements at Katunayake is around 57,000 per year. It increases around 7% per annum and by 2017 will surpass 75,000 and 2022 will hit the 100,000 mark. That will be the time Sri Lanka will definitely need a second runway. 2022 is just 6 years away. A 4000 meter runway is extremely expensive and a lot of land needs to be acquired. A would be solution is to have a smaller runway like what Narita did; 2500 meters long and able to take all the smaller passenger jets, which I think is at least 50% of the aeroplanes that land at Katunayake. Of course this two runway system will not cater for an A380 operation. The 45 meters runway width we have is not enough for the 47 meter outer engine separation of an A380. But then, Emirates is the only big time A380 operator with possibilities of 200 plus more orders in the future. The A380 is long haul; then why would Emirates come to Sri Lanka on an A380? They won’t go long haul from Sri Lanka? The same would apply to most of the big airlines, Qatar, Etihad, SIA, and Cathay. It is a chance we may have to take and look at a less costly shorter runway. Of course we will win the international hub battle and solve the congestion problem with an additional shorter runway. But the re-surfacing problem will still loom and perhaps it could be sorted too by sectional re-surfacing.
So the committees have been in action. They would have looked at all options. Let us now take a layman’s view of this matter of a second runway. Katunayake with an additional landing strip should have been the thought when Mattala was incubated. That is exactly what IATA recommended after discussions with airlines that operated to Sri Lanka. But then, sadly at that time our thinking was ‘Koheda yanne? Malle Pol” where aviation was concerned.
Most newly planned international airports are built with parallel runways as air-traffic is ever increasing. Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur all have twin runways with the terminal in the middle. That is the most efficient way to build parallel runways. Katunayake will not be different. A new runway parallel to the existing one built on the southern side of the existing terminal would be the best of the wish list. Of course BOI is right there, but I am sure it can be ‘solution sorted’ accommodating a 2500 meter runway simply because it is the only palatable answer to the Katunayake runway problem.
There was talk of a completely new airport with two runways to be built in Muthurajawela or in the Horana area. Definite possibilities as it would be a new venture. But then, such visions do not come cheap and if money was no problem we can build the new airport with two runways in the sea itself, anywhere we like, same as what Osaka City did. Yes, expensive, but that too is an option.
Looks like it is Hobson’s Choice to go south of the terminal if Katunayake wants to add another landing strip. This new runway is not someone’s fancy, but a dire need. The 100,000 movements in 2022 demands it. Of course the additional benefit is the international hub which would be the icing on the cake.
The experts and the consultants can give their professional views, but it is the Diyawanna Oya clan who will decide and make things happen in this land of ours. Pray this time they will choose the right answer devoid of political squabbles.
Four new civilian airports, one badly needed parallel runway in Katunayake, one monumental mistake in Mattala; we do have some serious aviation decisions to make as a nation. Over to you Diyawanna Oya, please be mindful that this is not T20 or 50 overs but long drawn test cricket. The need is for far reaching solutions that merit careful considerations. Are we capable? Sure we are, we do have experts who know what they are talking about. But the billion rupee question is would Diyawanna Oya listen?
Capt Elmo Jayawardena……………Elmojay1@gmail.com
A NOTE: ………….Diyawaana Oya is the man made lake in front of the parliament Diyawanna Oya clan are the politicians
“Storyteller of the Skies – interview with Elmo Jayawardena (8 February 2009)” …..…… http://howtotellagreatstory.com/2012/12/storyteller-of-the-skies-interview-with-elmo-jayawardena-8-february-2009/
ADDENDUM, 9 February 2016
B 737-700 aircraft in Mattala
An B 737-700 aircraft flying from Beijing , China to Mauritius arrived at the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) today for a fuel refill, the manager of MRIA stated. A number of aircrafts land at Mattala once in a few months for fuel refill, it is reported. In addition, FLY Dubai aircrafts operates daily between the Dubai and MRIA, and a number of aircrafts belonging to Rotana Jet company lands at Mattala two days a week, according to airport officials.