Zulfath Saheed highlights Jaffna’s international airport and its growth prospects

Barring the fallout from the tragic circumstances that followed on the heels of the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 and political instability in the year prior to that, Sri Lanka’s travel sector in particular and its tourism industry in general have experienced an uptick when it comes to arrival numbers in the postwar decade.

This has meant that there’s been greater interest in the former war-torn provinces of the island’s north and east, requiring travel options for would-be tourists locally, as well as from other parts of the world – particularly regional markets.

Until the end of last year, Sri Lanka’s extant colonial railway system was considered to be among the most efficient modes of transport to the Northern Province. But in October 2019, the Jaffna International Airport – the third of its classification in the country – was declared open. And it has the potential to herald a new era in Sri Lanka’s airline sector.

LAUNCH DETAILS At the time of its launch in 2019, a statement issued by the then presidential secretariat revealed that Jaffna International Airport was built at a cost of US$ 12 million with funding from the governments of Sri Lanka and India.

The opening ceremony was followed by the landing of a Bombardier ATR 72-600 aircraft, courtesy the Indian regional carrier Alliance Air, on the newly constructed runway. This marked the first international flight to land in the northern region. Following this event, Jaffna International Airport is expected to accommodate larger aircraft in the future as additional investments pour in.

PREVIOUS AVATAR In World War II (WWII), the Royal Air Force (RAF) built an airfield of around 2,000 metres in length on 145 hectares of land in Palaly near Kankesanthurai in what was then northern Ceylon.

A number of Royal Air Force squadrons and Air Sea Rescue units are said to have been stationed at the airfield during and immediately after the war. However, it was abandoned after WWII and taken over by the Department of Civil Aviation.

The inaugural flight by Air Ceylon on 10 December 1947 took off from Ratmalana Airport to Madras (now Chennai) through Palaly. Post Sri Lanka gaining independence, Jaffna’s airport provided flights to Colombo and Trincomalee, as well as parts of South India.

Palaly Airport served as a major facility for the Sri Lankan military in the island’s nearly three decade long civil conflict. And in the early 1990s, the airport and its surrounding areas were declared a high security zone. Civilian flights from Palaly resumed in June 2002, following a ceasefire facilitated by Norway.

RECENT RENEWAL In the post-civil war years, an appeal was made to upgrade Palaly Airport into a facility worthy of international status with the Sri Lankan and Indian governments at the forefront of financing the endeavour.

Airport redevelopment work commenced in July 2019, involving the extension of its runway from 950 to 1,400 metres, enabling it to handle aircraft with a seating capacity of up to 75.

The Road Development Authority (RDA) was tasked with the construction of the new apron, taxiway and roads, as well as overlaying the runway. Meanwhile, the state-owned Airport & Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) was responsible for constructing the control tower, a terminal building, fire brigade facilities, an office complex and air navigation systems.

FUTURE PROSPECTS In the wake of the development of Jaffna International Airport in late 2019, plans were also announced for a similar facility to be established in the Eastern Province by way of the Batticaloa Airport.

Reports indicate that the Government of India has agreed to cooperate in this endeavour as well and extend air services to Batticaloa Airport. Meanwhile, the relevant minister had reportedly requested that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) prepare a report on
the steps required to transform Batticaloa Airport into one that assumes international stature.

A military air base known as Sri Lanka Air Force Batticaloa (or SLAF Batticaloa), Batticaloa Airport is located in the village of Puthunagar on the island of Thimilathiu, southwest of the city of Batticaloa. It was established in 1958 as a domestic airport but ceased to function in 1979 following the collapse of Air Ceylon.

The site was subsequently seized by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) during the civil war but the airport was reopened for civil aviation and domestic flights recommenced in 2018.

It is reported that Rs. 1.4 billion had been spent by the previous administration on reconstructing the Batticaloa domestic airport following its operations and maintenance being vested with the CAA in 2016.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if in fact, plans will go ahead with the establishment of another international airport in Sri Lanka aimed at providing greater access to the island’s tourism hotspots.