Sri Lanka's second international airport, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA), started its operations last Monday (18). With its opening, the Ministry of Civil Aviation expects one million passengers to arrive in the country, within the year.
Chairman of the Airport and Aviation Services Ltd, and the person in charge of the project, Prasanna Wickremasuriya, said four airlines have already agreed to fly to MRIA.
"SriLankan Airlines, Mihin Lanka, Fly Dubai and Air Arabia have confirmed flying to MRIA. In addition to these four airlines, Emirates, Thai Airways and Turkish Airlines have also shown an interest to fly to MRIA," he said, adding, with the opening of MRIA, passengers will have a choice as there are two airports in the country.
"Passengers who want to come to Colombo can use the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in Katunayake, while people who are from outstation can use MRIA. Many important tourist destinations such as Nuwara Eliya, Yala and Arugam Bay are closer to MRIA than BIA. In 2012, nearly 115,000 tourists visited the Yala National Park.
This number can be increased, if the tourists can arrive to an airport closer to the national park, than the BIA. They can arrive and depart from MRIA," he explained.
He also said a tourist bus service will be available from Mattala, to transport tourists to various attractions around the country.
Wickremasuriya said, "Though Mattala is on the fringes of the Southern Province, it also borders three other provinces, namely, Sabaragamuwa, Eastern and Uva, whereas if you take Colombo, it is bordering only one province, Wayamba. Therefore, a passenger coming to Mattala can easily reach the entire hill region, Trincomalee and the rest of the country. MRIA's passenger capacity during the first stage of the airport is one million, whereas the cargo capacity is 45,000 metric tonnes. The land area is around 5,000 square metres. The cargo building also has cold storage capability. There are 540 air routers around the area.
Air Arabia, the first and largest low-cost carrier (LCC) in the Middle East and North Africa, added its second destination in Sri Lanka with the launch of non-stop flights to Mattala.
The new route marks Air Arabia's 84th destination worldwide. The inaugural flight G9508 took off to Mattala on18 March 2013.
The low-cost pioneer will operate two weekly services between Sharjah and Mattala, to be increased to four times a week starting from19 May 2013.
On Thursdays and Sundays, flights will depart from the Sharjah International Airport at 21:30, and will arrive at MRIA at 03:45. Return flights will depart the next day from Mattala at 04:25 and will arrive in Sharjah at 07:35 (local time).
Group Chief Executive Officer, Air Arabia, Adel Ali said: "It is a continuation of Air Arabia's longstanding commitment to expand our presence in the Indian Subcontinent. Just a few months after our inception in 2003, we launched a direct service to Colombo, which was our first destination in the Subcontinent, and we are delighted now to add a second route to the country. Our new service to Mattala is in direct response to passenger demand, and it contributes to the trade and tourism ties between the UAE and Sri Lanka."
The launch of services to Mattala will complement Air Arabia's existing nine weekly flights from Sharjah to Colombo. The airline currently offers daily flights to the capital city, and twice daily on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Air Arabia currently has nine flights to Sri Lanka, out of which they will fly twice to MRIA.
"British Airways (BA), which will start flights to Sri Lanka via Male from 15 April this year, hopes to start flights to the MRIA by next year or the year after. BA will want to see how Mattala is taking off the ground, because BA is very security-conscious. They will see whether their required securities are obtained. In the future, they might operate at MRIA," said Director/General Manager, General Sales Agent (GSA) for BA, Hayleys Aviation, Gerard Victoria.
Turkish Airlines, which started flights to Sri Lanka on 1 February this year, has hopes of going to Mattala.
"We are really positive about the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA). It depends on our direct flights from Istanbul to Colombo. When we will have daily direct flights, why can't some of these flights arrive at the Mattala Airport? It is a really new and wonderful airport and hopefully with a good service, we hope to get in at MRIA. But we need some time to finalize that," said Turkish Airlines General Manager - Northern and Eastern India, Adnan Aykac.
Meanwhile, Chief Executive Officer of SriLankan Airlines, (CEO) Kapila Chandrasena said during the first phase, SriLankan Airlines will be operating two flights to Riyadh, four to Male, two to Beijing and one to Shanghai both flying via Bangkok, while there will be two Mihin Lanka flights operating to Bodh Gaya, adding they do not expect all the local passengers who arrive in or depart from BIA, who are residents of Colombo and suburbs, to come to MRIA.
"For example, most of those who leave for Middle Eastern destinations and Bodh Gaya are from other regions of the country. So, they will find it convenient to board their intended flights from an airport situated in the vicinity, rather than coming to Colombo. Besides, Mattala will also attract investors who are hoping to start business there, and not to forget the wildlife and nature enthusiasts who will choose MRIA over BIA for obvious reasons," he added.
When asked whether there will be domestic airline services he said, SriLankan Airlines will be operating six flights to Mattala from Colombo and five to Colombo from Mattala.
He further added, with the opening of MRIA, SriLankan has introduced special fares for both its internal and international flights. He said, through this move, we are expecting to attract more passengers to get the taste of the novel flight experience.
"Besides, being the major flight operator at MRIA with our selected line up of destinations, we are looking at various sections of passengers who will be flying with us, thereby bringing in revenue. We are also targeting Sri Lankan expatriates living and working in the Middle East from the surrounding provinces. This will give us a commercial advantage over the other carriers. We consider the initial investments as the investment for the future and building a sustainable competitive advantage. We, as the national carrier are participating in a national venture for the future," he said.
When asked whether there are enough facilities around MRIA for air passengers he said the facilities are available now. He added, with the commissioning of the airport and the economic development, these facilities will continue to expand at a rapid pace. Furthermore, the transport infrastructure development associated with the airport will reduce the travel time from the airport to the tourist attractions and the accommodation close-by.
Minister of Civil Aviation, Piyankara Jayaratne said they are expecting one million passengers to come to the MRIA in the first year. He said, MRIA was constructed by taking a loan of US$ 209 from China and that loan is due to be paid within 20 years.
Not a 'white elephant'
"We believe we will get enough returns from MRIA to pay back the loan. This is not a white elephant," he said.
The minister went on to say there has been the need for a second international airport for the country for a long time, but none of the governments took steps to construct an airport.
"There were situations in which the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) could not get landing rights. In such cases we had to send those flights to India. However, we do not need to do it anymore. We can send such flights to MRIA," he said.
Meanwhile, in order to facilitate the passengers who use MRIA, Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) will commence special luxury bus services to Mattala daily.
According to a higher official of the SLTB this bus service will commence through the Southern Expressway.
He said ten luxury buses will be deployed initially and SLTB hopes to increase the number of buses according to the demand of the passengers, adding bus services will be conducted from other parts of the country in the near future.
He said the time tables of these bus services will be released soon.