Hambantota Airport Fueled By Politics
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On Friday (27) President Mahinda Rajapaksa laid the foundation stone for a new USD $200 million international airport in Hambantota. The government says that the airport is necessary as a second gateway to Sri Lanka and as an alternate airport for aircraft arriving at Katunayake International Airport, but some aviation professionals see the Hambantota airport as a wasteful political gimmick rather than a well-considered infrastructure project.
This is the third attempt to build a second international airport for the island. The UNP tried to build one in the Kuda Oya area, but lost power before the plans could come to fruition. Then the UPFA administration decided to expand the existing Weerawila airport, only to face stiff resistance from the environmental authority (the airport was close to a bird sanctuary) and opposition from area farmers (the airport would consume rich farm land used for paddy cultivation). Now the airport is scheduled to be constructed in Mattala, which will require clearing 2,000 hectares of natural forest cover and shrub land.
“Flying in Sri Lanka is an absolute nightmare,” said one Sri Lankan pilot, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “It’s a huge hassle to get to the airport. All the general aviation training has been shifted to small airfields south of Colombo. These airfields are not suitable for training — they do not have adequate runway lights. With all these problems I don’t know why they’re trying to build a 200 million dollar airport. The government should improve the other airfields first.”
A designated alternate airport
According to international regulatory requirements, all airports must have a designated alternate airport in the event that a landing at the original airport is impossible due to bad weather conditions, an obstructed landing strip, or the closure of the airport. Presently, the alternate for Katunayake is Trivandrum Airport in South India, which is around 190 nautical miles and 20 minutes away. Many people do not understand that having an alternate airport close to the original destination, as in the case of Mattala, is not very practical, because the weather at the alternate airport will be similar to the original airport.
Government officials rejected these criticisms, claiming that a second international airport would be good for the aviation industry and for the Southern Province.
“The new airport is necessary for a number of reasons, said Parakrama Dissanayake, Director of Aeronautical Services for the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka. “We don’t have an alternate airstrip for the country. We had an accident in 2004 when a cargo aircraft crashed near Katunayake airport. Had there been another airport the plane wouldn’t have crashed that day. The airport will also facilitate the airline industry because now all airplanes must carry enough fuel to go to an airport in India or Male. So if there’s a closer airport they won’t have to carry so much fuel.”
However, statistics and historical data show that aircraft arriving at Katunayake have diverted on very few occasions due to weather. More often, planes have diverted due to LTTE attacks, which were made possible by the failure of the Sri Lanka Air Force to provide adequate security to the airfield. The poor security resulted in airport closures, including a night curfew.
Aviation in Sri Lanka has been systematically destroyed by the very authorities that regulate it. The Civil Aviation Authority and the Sri Lanka Air Force have restricted general aviation so heavily that only a handful of aircraft can operate in the country. Even after winning the war the authorities have been shy to approve the import of aircraft. This has had serious and irreparable effects on the aviation industry and on career opportunities in aviation. At present, many student pilots opt to fly in the United States because they get more experience and time at a lower cost than in Sri Lanka. This represents a serious loss of foreign exchange to the country.
Sri Lanka has 14 airfields distributed strategically around the island. These airfields were built by the British and managed by the Civil Aviation Authority in accordance with International Civil Aviation Organisational Standards. At the inception of the ethnic conflict the airfields were taken over by the Sri Lanka Air Force, which lacked the knowledge and ability to meet these civil aviation standards.
“Due to the security situation the Air Force stifled general aviation, and the country paid the price for it,” the Sri Lankan pilot said. “But even with peace they have not loosened the restrictions. Civil aviation should be handed over to the Civil Aviation Authority. Now the jurisdiction is with the Air Force and they are not a competent authority. None of the other ministries have any idea how to manage civil aviation.”
The country’s maintenance capabilities and technical expertise are concentrated in SriLankan Airlines, which itself is limited by a shortage of trained personnel. The pilot alleged that the aviation industry has been choked by a group of incompetent officials more focused on keeping their jobs than in providing proper policy recommendations to the government.
Refurbish existing airfields
Instead of wasting $200 million on a new airport, the pilot said that the government should upgrade the Instrument Landing System (ILS) at Katunayake, develop and refurbish existing airfields and install proper navigational facilities. Upgrading existing airfields at Ratmalana, Weerawila, Jaffna and Trincomalee to regional airports will serve both the people and the tourism industry. An airport must have support infrastructure: roads, hotels and services. Just because Hambantota has a port does not mean that people will fly there. After all, this is one of the poorest regions of Sri Lanka with the lowest per capita income.
Civil Aviation Authority official Dissanayake said the government chose to build the airport in Hambantota to stimulate growth in the south.
“The government has a plan to develop the southern region,” he said. “It will create jobs and growth near Hambantota, both inside and outside the aviation industry. People want this airport; there is no doubt about it.” But why not expand the existing airport at Ratmalana? “There are a couple of constraints for expansion at Ratmalana because of the population density and the obstructions around the airport. It could be developed, but priority was given to Hambantota.”
So it seems that the government is determined to spend USD $200 million of the people’s money on a single mega project. Politicians of developing countries use these mega projects to impress their people, knowing that they will be long gone by the time people realise the damage it has caused. Although the Chinese government will fund this project, nothing comes free: have we forgotten about the destruction of 2,000 hectares of shrub land?
Despite the government’s reassurances, many Sri Lankans continue to believe that the Hambantota airport is fueled by politics, not necessity. The only people likely to benefit from this financial sinkhole are the politicians who pushed it through and the contractors hired to build it. As for the five-hour driving time between the airport and Colombo, Dissanayake has one message: Get used to it.
“When mobile phones were introduced to Sri Lanka in the 1990s, people said that nobody would buy them,” he said. “Now, everyone owns one. It will be the same with the airport.”
Perhaps Dissanayake believes that, just as mobile phones became more affordable over time, the Hambantota airport will move closer to Colombo as it becomes more popular! With this kind of thinking, it’s no wonder that aviation experts are skeptical about the government’s intentions. The government’s logic seems to be “if you build it, they will come.” Only history can judge whether it is right or wrong.
Now you can be a confident expert on aviation, airport. OK, maybe not an expert. But you should have something to bring to the table next time you join a discussion on aviation, airport.