The case for Ratmalana | Sunday Observer

The case for Ratmalana

Airports connect people and cities around the world. They are an essential part of our lives. As the demand for international travel increases, cities necessarily have to expand their airports and even build additional ones. Thus, most cities around the world have at least two international airports and some cities such as Moscow, London and New York have four or more airports.

Colombo does have two airports, at Katunayake and Ratmalana. The latter used to be the country’s sole international airport until the airport at Katunayake was expanded and designated as an international airport in 1969. It is now known as the Bandaranaike International Airport, IATA code CMB. Ratmalana has since functioned as a secondary airport, albeit one which cannot handle the big airliners.

Ratmalana, identified by the IATA airport code RML, has many advantages over Katunayake. It is much closer to Colombo (just 15 km) than Katunayake (35 km), the road linkages are better and depending on the air route, some airlines will have a shorter flight path. Aviation experts have long argued that Ratmalana should again become a full-fledged international airport.

In line with this thinking, the Government has drawn up a master plan to develop the Ratmalana Airport to provide efficient domestic and international flight services as a ‘City’ Airport. It presently operates around 70 domestic aircraft movements per day, apart from Sri Lanka Air Force military flights. The airport also hosts Aviation Training facilities.

The main drawback faced by Ratmalana is that its present runway is well short of 2,000 metres, leave alone the 3,500-4,000 metres required by bigger aircraft. The expansion of the runway is essential for accommodating larger aircraft. The other facilities (baggage and passenger screening, immigration, baggage belts etc.) will have to be improved in tandem with this expansion.

Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva has made a proposal to implement the Master Development Plan ‘Way to 2030’ incorporating the strategic plans to be implemented from 2018 to 2030, prepared for the improvement of the Ratmalana Airport as an Airport providing efficient domestic and international flight services.

There will no doubt be a big demand from airlines to serve Ratmalana. It will be an especially interesting option for Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) and even smaller legacy airlines, if more attractive landing fees are offered. Even with the expansion currently underway, the BIA will face congestion as airlines vie for the limited slots available.

Sri Lanka’s tourist arrivals could possibly top 3 million by 2025 and we have to be ready for the influx. In short, we need more airline seats coming into Colombo. A two-airport solution will be needed to cater to this expansion.

Sri Lanka does have a second international airport at Mattala, but unless more tourist attractions and hotels come up in the area, there will be little or no demand from airlines to serve this airport. Ratmalana, on the other hand, is easily accessible for airlines with a ready passenger base.

Although around 30 international airlines operate flights to BIA, more airlines are literally waiting in the wings to commence flights to Sri Lanka. Some airlines that already fly to BIA want to start additional flights. The capacity constraints at BIA are a barrier to this expansion.

If Ratmalana can accommodate small to medium size international aircraft such as ATR-72s and 100 seater jets, there will be a big demand from regional airlines. More airlines are gravitating towards smaller aircraft that can fly between secondary city pairs within 5,000-6,000 km – Ratmalana will be in an ideal position to tap this market. It will also open entirely new markets for both, inbound and outbound tourism. Jaffna Palaly too can be developed as an international airport with the regional market in mind.

The expansion of Ratmalana will be no easy task, given that it is a highly built up area. The Government has already made arrangements to secure some of the required lands nearby, but more needs to be done. One proposal is to make Galle Road an underpass near the airport and take that land area as well for the airport expansion. The authorities will have to address environmental concerns as well. Obviously, night flights will have to be restricted as this a residential area.

But one should not underestimate Ratmalana’s existing role as a VIP passenger jet and domestic airport. These operations too should be strengthened. For a start, the airport terminal building should be totally rebuilt inclusive of more comfortable lounges. The authorities should also consider building faster road and rail links connecting the BIA with Ratmalana, so that passengers who have domestic flights starting from Ratmalana could arrive easily from the BIA.

In fact, the development of domestic airports is essential for a country gearing for a boom in tourism. There are many countries much smaller than Sri Lanka which have more vibrant domestic airline industries. Ten main domestic airports including Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Ampara, Hingurakgoda and Batticaloa and smaller landing strips are being developed with this aim in mind. We hope they are also being upgraded with the latest safety and communications systems including advanced firefighting systems.

Many high spending and savvy tourists do not want to spend days on the road and they want to reach their destinations in less than one hour. The country’s small size makes it possible – whether by seaplane (air taxi), helicopter or jet aircraft, no destination is really far away.

Domestic operators should also look at purchasing or leasing the latest models of business jets and turboprops which are more suitable for internal operations. Despite global economic volatility, the worldwide business jet /small jet market is booming and manufacturers are keen to spread their wings further with attractive deals for operators including extended free warranties. They are also safer, with the latest avionics suites and communications systems.

Wider publicity must be given to the availability of these flights overseas, because many travellers do not know much about this option.

The Colombo-Jaffna route is very well known, but the availability of flights to upmarket destinations such as Nuwara Eliya (by air taxi) is not so well known. This lacuna must be addressed by our tourism and aviation authorities.

One idea they should explore is the possibility of introducing an ‘Air Pass’, a type of season ticket that can be purchased overseas, perhaps along with the international flight to and from Sri Lanka or even separately from a dedicated secure website. Under such a package, a tourist will be able to hop on and off at several domestic destinations at a more affordable rate.

A vibrant aviation industry is vital for a developing country, especially one that is emerging from three decades of conflict that inhibited growth. The development of airports throughout the country is thus a step in the right direction.