Some 75 years after plans were first mentioned about a second international airport to grow air services on the island country of Sri Lanka, the new Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) in the southern state of Hambantota, the fastest growing region in the country, was formally inaugurated on March 18, 2013 by Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The facility is designed to handle up to one million passengers and over 6,000 aircraft movements per year, and will help ease some of the capacity pressures facing Sri Lanka’s congested main gateway, Bandaranaike International Airport in the capital city Colombo.
But MRIA is more than just a reliever airport; the gateway is an integral part of the Greater Hambantota City Development, a mega infrastructure programme that will see a seaport, airport, an oil refinery, hotels and road and rail networks constructed to help encourage tourism and economic growth in the underdeveloped southern coastal region. With this in mind, the facility has been designed as both a gateway for tourists and as a commercial destination in its own right and there is already talk about extending the airport to handle five million passengers and 150,000 metric tonnes of cargo in a second phase of development.
“Offering some of the world’s most exciting tourism attractions, cutting-edge industrial and technological zones, a deep water port and incentives for investors, Hambantota has all this and more,” a spokesman for the facility confirmed to The HUB ahead of the opening ceremony.
The new gateway to the south of Sri Lanka has been constructed as part of a major investment from China in projects within the country which crosses a number of industries. A $200 million loan from the Chinese government provided the bulk of the funding for the construction, with the rest coming from the Government of Sri Lanka and national aviation authority, Airport and Aviation Services Limited (AASL), which now manages the airport.
It boasts a 10,000 square metre passenger terminal, ten aircraft gates, a 35 metre high control tower and a 3,500 metre runway. Construction of the airport began in November 2009 on some 400 hectares of Greenfield land 15 kilometres north of the town of Hambantota, but a total of 2,000 hectares has been set aside for the project as a whole with the rest being developed into landscaped lakes and gardens or awaiting future ‘aerotropolis’ real estate developments.
The first flight arrived at the new airport on October 16, 2012 as part of the initial test phase. The Beech 200 Super King Air from the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan calibrated the air navigational aids at the facility over the subsequent days, and at the end of January 2013 the first commercial jet airliner arrived as a SriLankan Airlines Airbus A330-200 arrived at MRIA on January 29, 2013 to prove its readiness to handle commercial operations.
AASL believes the opening of MRIA will help the country’s tourism and hospitality industry to flourish with the integrated development of port and airport in the southern region facilitating trade to this part of Sri Lanka. With a terminal equipped with 12 check-in desks, a series of departure control desks covering an area of 230 square metres, a 500 square metre holding room, a 370 square metre arrivals and immigration area and a 900 square metre baggage reclaim and customs space, there is adequate capacity to meet the forecasted total of 500,000 passengers by 2028, while a 1,000 square metre cargo facility is expected to handle 50,000 tonnes of freight per year. The airport has a runway and facilities capable of handling the giant Airbus A380 Super Jumbo.
“The new airport will be a boon to the local aviation industry while being a catalyst for the economic development of the southern province through the enabling of international trade, tourism, vocational training and employment,” says AASL.
According to the latest GDS inventory SriLankan Airlines will offer flights from MRIA to Bangkok, Beijing, Male, Riyadh and Shanghai Pu Dong with all the routes being served as part of an itinerary that originates or ends at Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport. Fellow Sri Lankan carrier Mihin Lanka will also serve the airport with a link to the Indian city of Gaya, on a routing that will begin and end in the capital.
United Arab Emirates (UAE) low-cost carrier Air Arabia is to be the first foreign airline to serve MRIA with a twice weekly link from its Sharjah International Airport base from March 18, 2013, increasing to a four times weekly schedule from May 19, 2013.
The budget carrier made its debut in Sri Lanka in May 2004 on a four times weekly schedule, growing to a daily operation from April 2005. It now offers nine weekly flights with a daily schedule to the capital city, including two rotations on Tuesdays and Fridays and says the launch of services to MRIA “will complement” its current operations rather than replace existing capacity into Sri Lanka.
“This announcement 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 to now add a second route to the country,” said Adel Ali, Group Chief Executive Officer, Air Arabia. “Our new service, which is four flights a week to Mattala, is in direct response to passenger demand and will contribute to the trade and tourism ties between UAE and Sri Lanka.” Air Arabia will be expanding its services to include daily flights to the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport from October 13, 2013 highlighting the importance of the region and the new airport.
On the day of the grand opening of the airport flights from Gaya, Dubai, Sharjah and Beijing all arrived at the facility, flying in a range of high-level delegations from multiple airlines along with His Excellency, the President of Sri Lanka, Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who flew in to Mattala on the inaugural Sri Lankan Airlines flight from Colombo.
At the opening ceremony, The Chairman of the Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Limited, Prasanna J. Wickramasuriya said: “Today we created history, construction of a new airport at Mattala indeed appeared as a dream. The odds were so enormous, I’m sure there would have been many who would have expected it to remain a dream. We were able to turn that dream into reality and what you witnessed today is the awakening from the dream.”