What to do with Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport?



Mattala airport


First, there was the China Bay airport nominated as a possible alternative to the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). The advantage was that since Sri Lanka was mainly affected by two Monsoons namely the South West and the North East, during that time the opposite coast has generally had good weather. For example, when the South-West monsoon was in full swing, the North-East was clear, and vice versa. The Air Ceylon Pilots’ Guild was pushing for that airport to be made an Alternative International Airport for BIA, but their request came too late as the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) in its wisdom had stated that they had no objection to tall silos to be built for the Prima Flour Mill, on the takeoff and landing path of the single runway.

Soon another place was suggested and that was somewhere near Nilaveli, 20 miles north of Trincomalee. In the 1970s, Nilaveli was developing fast into a tourist area. This idea too was dropped, perhaps due to the LTTE problems brewing up. The need for an alternate international airport in the island was felt necessary as all aircraft landing at BIA were required by the Ceylon Air Navigation Regulations (ANRs) to carry fuel for Madras (the nearest alternative international airport to BIA,

that could accept large jets) plus fuel for another half an hour. If a second International Airport was established in Sri Lanka, airlines operating to BIA could arrive with less fuel. The problem was that all aircraft ‘burn fuel to carry fuel’. For example, if an aircraft needed to have 10,000 kilos of fuel when overhead BIA, the crew will have to uplift 12,000 kg at the point of departure! (Depending on the flying time). Therefore, carrying less fuel was a saving.

With the operation of the Lockheed L 1011 TriStars in the Airline, Air Lanka got involved with Air Canada on operational procedures. In the Canadian Operations Manual it was stated that it was not necessary to always have fuel onboard to a designated alternate airport and it permitted the Captain to arrive at the destination with a lesser amount of fuel, provided the destination airport predicted good weather and had at least two runways.

The theory behind the thinking was that even if one runway becomes unusable due to some reason, a second runway was available, as a backup for the landing. Interestingly, even today, when a new airline requests permission from the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) to operate to BIA, they have to show that they are capable of removing any disabled aircraft as soon as possible, so as not to obstruct and leave the single runway unserviceable for an unnecessarily long time.

The Air Navigation Regulations of the developed countries were all updated with the advance of aviation, while in contrast, Sri Lanka was still using ANRs promulgated in 1955! Unfortunately, even though the Aviation Act was amended in 2014, the supplementary regulations in force are still the 1955 version. But that’s another story. Getting back to our story, in the early eighties, it was felt that the original concrete runway built by the Canadians was now getting too old and a new runway should be built at BIA with Japanese aid. The plan was that the new runway was going to be parallel to and north of the existing one which will be converted (narrowed down) to a taxiway.

It was then that the Air Line Pilots’ Guild of Sri Lanka got activated and approached General S.Attygalle and requested him to retain the old runway as a second runway, so that the concept of carrying extra fuel during times of good weather, was not necessary. Even an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) expert was called in. He declared that the new tall Air Traffic Control Tower that had already been built was too close to the old runway, making its use illegal. On the other hand, what the Airline pilots wanted was a runway that needed to be used as a ‘one off’ case, in case of an emergency and not on a regular basis. However, the plan fell through. They were back to square one.

The next possible place suggested for an alternative was Hingurakgoda Airport. There was Australian financial aid in the offing. There was a very good possibility of becoming a reality. In fact, Singapore Airlines constructed Boeing 747 performance charts for the proposed runway! However, some decision makers thought that the estimated costs were too high and based on Australian labour rates. Other critics said that the same weather affecting BIA will also affect the Hingurakgoda site. Eventually, that idea too was dropped.

Then the SLAF decided to move its Jet fighter Base to Sigiriya Airport which, after extension, could have also accepted big passenger jets diverting from BIA, due to bad weather or runway unserviceability. The Archeology Department objected to that move as noise and vibration produced by the jet exhaust noise will affect the Sigiriya Rock. At this point the then President Chandrika gave the exclusive use of an SLAF, Bell 412 helicopter to the Director General of Archeology Dr. Roland Silva and Chairman Urban Development Authority, Eng. Gemunu Silva, for two weeks to travel the length and breadth of the Island looking for a suitable site for an Alternate International Airport for BIA. In fact, they found a suitable site (250 Hectares, within the triangle of Kekirawa, Dambulla and Habarana) that consisted mainly of crown land needing no major acquisition from the farmers. A report was submitted to the then President. Sadly, it never saw the light of day. (Money down the drain?)

The Second Runway at BIA

Meanwhile, many experts thought that the best option was to construct a second runway at BIA. I am told that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Dayantha Athulathmudali, a former Deputy Director of CAASL, did an extensive study. The Attanagalu Oya, relocating the SLAF Base, the effect on the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) and how the presence of a number of churches and temples in the area may be affected were considerations. The question was whether the new, second Runway would be North or South of the existing one (built with Japanese aid.)

Going Down South

It was then that suddenly a decision was made to go south to the Hambantota District, on the instruction of the then Secretary to Ports and Civil Aviation. Initially, three possible sites were identified. They were Udamaththala, Gannoruwa and Weerawilla. In 2007, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was done at the behest of the ‘Project Proponent’ Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd, on behalf of the ‘Project Approving Agency’, Central Environmental Authority (CEA), by the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB). The Report surmised that since there was an Airport already in existence at Weerawilla that, it that was the most cost-effective place to site the 2nd International Airport. According to the report, it was the most preferred site from all three options. Weerawilla was constructed by the Department of Civil Aviation, with the assistance of Banduladasa, a private pilot and the son of ‘Reliable Mudalali’ owner of Reliable Motors of Tissamaharama. That’s another story!

When the government announced that the 2nd International Airport was to be built at Weerawila, many aviation ‘experts’ wrote to the newspapers that priorities were mixed up and that the best option was to build a second runway at BIA and someone even said that Weerawilla was “One of the best examples of an ill-conceived project and chronic waste of tax-payers’ money.” The same sentiments were expressed in 1975, of the Mirabel Airport in Montreal, Canada which was meant to be the largest airport in the world and built to coincide with the summer Olympics of 1976, in Canada. After being built, it existed in a state of disuse for 27 years.

Mirabel Airport Montreal, Quebec, Canada

There were many experts who thought that the Weerawila International Airport will go the same way. When the farmers discovered that the Government preferred site was Weerawila airport and that their paddy lands would have to be acquired, their organizations resorted to legal action and the government then was forced to go to the second preference, clearing 800 hectares (almost 2,000 acres) of elephant habitat by cutting 44,000 hardwood trees, and it was just 13 km away from the original Weerawilla site. It was common knowledge that this site was in the middle of an elephant corridor. No one spoke up.

The Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), Sri Lanka has gone on record saying “Since there was no objection from any stakeholders, we gave permission to the Mattala project. I refute the allegations leveled against this institution by the Environmentalists. Those allegations are made to mislead the people.” He could have read the whole story in his own CEA Library (Report 98).

The Mattala airport project started in 2009. Sadly, the Airline Pilots, being the end users, were not even consulted. No wind studies in the new site were done. (The International Civil Aviation Organization recommendations are that there has to be a wind study for at least five years with readings taken at least eight times daily at frequent intervals.) The flight conditions in the area in terms of turbulence must also be studied, as recommended by Annex 14 to the ICAO Convention. The officers of CAASL didn’t even know or didn’t care to find out the relative location of the Bundala Bird Sanctuary, Yala Sanctuary and the proposed site.

They didn’t even possess a detailed map!  (Yours truly donated a 1: 50,000 map of the area to the CAASL) In March 2007, the Sri Lanka Aeronautical Society (SLAeS) was formed, to be a ‘think tank’ on aviation matters. All aspects of Aviation came under its purview.  When the first President of the SLAeS, who was an Airline Captain not working in Sri Lanka, pointed out the embarrassing truth that Mattala was going to be a bad investment and that it was SLAeS’ duty to make it known, it was not received well by the ‘yes men’ of the CAASL, and a parallel Association was formed to take over some of the functions of the SLAeS to deliberately wind down the SLAeS which then died an unnatural death because the ‘Mattala Project’ had to go through at all costs.

Everyone, including the officers of CAASL were afraid to speak up. So much so that the Aviation Minister declared in 2017 to the members of the CAASL “Ogollo apata kewwe na” (You never told us!). There were many other acts of omission. In fairness to CAASL in 2007, its Management was in a fluid state. The CAASL Chairman’s contract wasn’t renewed and the Director General had taken a leave of absence from CAASL as he had had a difference of opinion with the then Chairman of Mihin Lanka. The officials managing the show were all in ‘acting positions’.

Today, there are days that the air is extremely turbulent on the final approach and it is a struggle even for the big Jet Pilots to fly in there. There have been some days when it is so turbulent that lighter aircraft are unable to land. Ironically, today the very same farming organizations which took out an ‘interim injunction’ on the development of the Weerawila airport are affected by the displaced elephants from Mattala. To add insult to injury, trees at the Sooriyawewa Cricket Grounds were also cleared in the name of progress.

That again is in neglect. Director, Environment Conservation Trust, Sajeewa Chamikara is reported to have said, “All attempts to educate the Aviation Ministry of the consequences that have to be faced in future when plans were drawn to construct an international airport at Mattala were ignored. Since this area is populated with migrant birds throughout the year, we told the government to shift the location to a place with less vulnerability, but their failure to listen to us has now brought several consequences,” (as reported by Nirmala Kannangara of the Sunday Leader). During the run up to the project, many frontline professionals also wrote about the dire consequences the aircraft, passengers and crew will have to face in the event of bird strikes.

After building a new airport, the authorities have to continuously maintain it at great expense. It has to meet high safety standards in inspection, servicing, overhaul and repair. Otherwise time will take its toll. Some of the areas that this will apply pertains to maintenance of visual aids, provision of spare parts, providing and implementing a ‘Lights Maintenance Schedule’ for general and basic maintenance for Approach, Runway and Taxiway lighting systems. Aircraft docking systems including light maintenance procedures, cleaning procedures for lights, light intensity measurements, lamp replacement, removal of water (condensation).

Maintaining signs and markings. (Just to paint the Centre line only on the runway over 1,000 gallons of white paint are needed!) Continuous maintenance of Airport Electrical Systems is another area, power cables and distributors in field, transformers and regulators (including standby units), transformer stations for electric power supply relay and switch cabinets (including switch cabinets in substations), control cables, monitoring units, control desk, secondary power supplies (generators), fixed 400 Hz ground power supplies and apron floodlighting. Maintenance of Pavements such as surface repair, cement concrete pavements, bituminous pavements, Repair of joints and cracks.

That is, joints in concrete pavements, joints in bituminous pavements, cracks in concrete pavements and cracks in bituminous pavements. Maintenance of grass and unpaved areas. Maintenance of all buildings inclusive of lighting and electric equipment, communication facilities, air conditioning system, automatic doors, baggage conveyor belts (fixed installations), baggage claim units, passenger boarding bridges, people lifts (elevators), people movers (escalators, etc.), Fixed fire protection installations and logistics of holding of regular safety department meetings. The list goes on.

If the authorities had built a second runway at BIA, there was little or no advantage in having a second International Airport in the island as there are only two or three days per year, when aircraft need to divert to another airport due to bad weather. BIA can also accommodate Airbus 380 aircraft in an emergency, if necessary. Operators are now retiring the A380 anyway! So, did the authorities get their priorities mixed up?  MRIA earning money by being there for overflying traffic is a big myth. BIA can satisfy the same requirement. With the advent of a pandemic such as Covid 19, the objective should be to reduce the points of entry to Sri Lanka and have a good Domestic Air Service, for tourists and local passengers. Jaffna, Batticaloa, Ratmalana, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Hingurakgoda and Weerawilla could be regional airports, serviced by smaller aircraft. That again is another story.

It has now been a few years since Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) commissioned and it continues bleeding taxpayers’ money. The ‘aviation experts’ of the day have not been able to give an acceptable solution to put MRIA to good/ profitable use. That is the bitter truth.  Doesn’t the whole sad scenario sound like the Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Emperor’s new Clothes”? The country needs to conserve every dollar it spends in continuous maintenance of MRIA.

Even with the electrical fencing, there are more elephants that trespass into the airport premises and the runway, than fare paying passengers. In the seventies, the Canadians were considered the best of the best airport builders. (They even built BIA). Yet it took the Canadian experts twenty-seven long years to realise that the Mirabel Airport project was a failure. It was built on a ‘political whim’ of the Pierre Trudeau Government. All the coaxing and big incentives given to attract the international airlines didn’t work. Every airline preferred the Duval Montreal International Airport. Then in 2012 they admitted their mistake and demolished the terminal buildings at last and gave (sold) the land back to the farmers.

What are we going to do with MRIA? Will the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL) and the environmentalists be able to resolve this expensive problem and face the situation squarely? Or, will we have to wait another 20 years like Mirabel International Airport, Montreal. Quebec, Canada?