Success story of Sri Lankan aviation | Sunday Observer

Success story of Sri Lankan aviation

24 October, 2021
SriLankan at Kushinagar International Airport
SriLankan at Kushinagar International Airport

Sri Lankan aviation which began in 1912 with the first aircraft landing in then Ceylon went a step further in the 1930’s with the construction of an aerodrome in Ratmalana which was redeveloped to then international standards in 1940 by the then British rulers with the beginning of World War 2.

In 1947 , the country’s first national carrier - Air Ceylon - inaugurated international flights from Colombo to Madras via Jaffna and since then the number of international flights out of Sri Lanka increased and thus the aviation chapter began and progressed with its ups and downs.

Minister D. V. Chanaka

These included the opening of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) in 1959 and during the 1960’s and 70’s the Royal Air Force and Air Ceylon offering domestic flights from the Ratmalana Airport to destinations such as Jaffna, China Bay in Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Ampara and Weerawila. Domestic air travel was subsequently taken over by the Sri Lanka Air Force and Upali Aviation while air taxis of the Maharajah Organisation operated charter flights to most of the local airports. However, with the LTTE terror the domestic aviation sector folded up and only resumed after permanent peace after the LTTE was defeated.

Air Lanka was established as the flag carrier of Sri Lanka once the Government closed down the bankrupt Air Ceylon. A significant event in Sri Lanka’s aviation history was the partial privatisation of SriLankan Airlines (then Air Lanka) in 1998 under a ten-year management contract with the Emirates Group, ending in 2008. This significantly changed the course of the airline’s development and fashioned it into what it is today. The creation of the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) in Mattala was another major positive landmark. While this history is being written one has to recall some of the darkest memories like bringing down the Lion Air passenger flight in Jaffna and the attack on the Katunayake airport both by the LTTE.

MRIA as a paddy store

However, a similar revengeful damage was also created by the former Yahapalana Government when they stored paddy at the MRIA airport cargo terminal thus damaging its newly installed air conditioning system. Minister of Aviation D. V. Chanaka said that over Rs. 50 million had to be invested to repair the damage to the AC and other operating systems and the marketing damage it caused to the MRIA was huge. The young Minister who hails from the area said that the Yahapalana Government then wanted to lease the MRIA to an Indian operator and it was rightly stalled.

“We are not against using unproductive assets by going in for productive agreements but MRIA is not an unproductive asset but it was cold shouldered purposely by the previous Government”. With Covid restricting passenger travel, Sri Lanka’s civil aviation industry was completely shut off and the BIA was closed. “Passenger movement was halted as BIA was in the capital and it was the MRIA that came in to bail out the local aviation sector”.

It assisted in Seafarer operations, medical and technical term transfers and also played the major role in re opening the local tourism sector by being the host airport to accommodate Kazakhstan, and Russian based travellers.

One also recalls the huge operation SriLankan Airlines did to bring down students from Wuhan, China who were stranded when the C-19 broke out and it was the MRIA airport that facilitated this operation. A group of 33 Sri Lankan students were brought to the country, on a special chartered Sri Lankan Airline flight. Minister Chanaka said that today the MRIA proved its true potential by these operations and is now gearing up to play an even bigger role.

Flights from MRIA to Male

“We are in talks with several international airlines to operate flights back to MRIA and we have received several positive responses.”“For a start SriLankan Airlines will commence direct passenger and cargo flights to the Maldives soon.”

Mercy flight to Wuhan: SriLankan Airlines courageous crew members and staff

He said this move stimulated the agro sector in the South and Eastern province as for the first time farmers will be able to export their products direct and receive payments in US dollars. “Hence we will further expand the cargo sector as its benefits will trickle down to the agro sector.”

“In addition, we are also looking at purchasing aviation fuel directly from overseas thus giving it at a lower price to the airlines. This will bring additional revenue to MRIA.”

However, the biggest opportunity for the MRIA would be the MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul. -A MRO refers to the specific repair, service or inspection of an aircraft. The practice encompasses that of all maintenance activities done to ensure the safety and airworthiness of an air transport vehicle similar to a human health check which will be the biggest in the region.

“A leading international airline operator based in South East Asia is keen to join us for this venture which will become one of the top three aviation revenue generators for Sri Lanka in time to come.”

He said that the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa Government had negotiated with Lufthansa Technik based in Hamburg with other bases in Frankfurt, Munich, and Berlin in Germany and other subsidiaries worldwide for this operation. “However, the Yahapalana Government was not keen to go ahead with this proposal thus depriving Sri Lanka a golden opportunity to earn around US$ 500 million per annum to the economy and generate over 1,000 high paying employment opportunities.”

“Several aviation schools and other revenue generating projects are on the cards to generate additional revenue for MRIA.”

Bailing out SriLankan

SriLankan Airlines, though making huge losses, its service to the tourism sector and health sector is unprecedented. “We have also resumed the Frankfurt and Paris flights to help the tourism sector revive. It also played and is still playing a huge role towards bringing down Covid vaccines, medical suppliers at a time when the aviation sector was dormant due to the Covid.”

SriLankan Airlines engineers converting passenger aircraft to full freighter

“We have observed that one mega ‘revenue drainer’ from the airline is the lease rentals and we have now renegotiated to bring it down to US$ 135 million for the next five years.” SriLankan Airlines has purchased 12 aircraft on lease and payments are still being made for them.

“We have also identified new income generating areas and are moving towards them. The cargo conversion market is booming, and we are getting onboard at the right time and getting the right economic benefits.”

SriLankan Airlines has already converted its own aircraft to cargo operations. The airline transformed some aircraft to allow maximum cargo capacity with main deck loading. In addition to the aircraft’s lower deck cargo hold to mainly support the needs of our export industries, as well as our imports sector, during the current global shortage of air cargo capacity and to strengthen the airline’s revenue stream during a time when the air transport industry is in a crisis.”

The reconfiguration of the aircraft was carried out in house at the airline’s hub at Bandaranaike International Airport, where the SriLankan Airlines’ engineering team worked around the clock. The national carrier suffered a loss of Rs. 372,015 million as of March 2021 and the Minister said that with tourism picking up, the launch of new routes and increased cargo operations the airline is making a turnaround from huge losses.

“India which has around 35 percent of the SriLankan operations was completely shut down and with this sector opening, we see a silver lining. The airline is also launching several new profitable routes.”

SriLankan makes history in Kushinagar

SriLankan also launched flights to India’s new Kushinagar International Airport last week. Minister of Youth and Sports Namal Rajapaksa, along with a delegation departed on the inaugural international flight.

A delegation of over 100 Buddhist bhikkus and 12 officials were on board the inaugural flight to the Airport, which was opened by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The inauguration of the Kushinagar International Airport was marked by the landing of the inaugural flight at the airport from SriLankan creating a historic landmark.