Mr. Prasanna J. Wickramasuriya, Chairman of Airports and Aviation Services, discusses plans for Sri Lanka to take advantage of its strategic location, and become an air transport and logistics hub for the entire South Asia region
What are your thoughts on the new administration and the change? How is Sri Lanka emerging from the past situation of conflict regarding terrorism and what is the next step?
I am glad that you started off with the new administration. In 2005 when the President requested a mandate to become president, he followed a mission. Previous successive governments had plans but they did not have a clear-cut and well-spelt out vision. His vision was to identify aviation as a key area where Sri Lanka has a very strategic location, so it can play a bigger role in aviation and maritime. He understood this way back in 2005 and he followed this strategy.
Would you say that the next step is to balance the country in order to reach parity within the regions?
Before 2005, 50% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was in the western province, so the whole idea of the President is to spread this development over the whole country. That is the idea.
To what extent can the civil aviation industry take part in this development to build an airport?
In 2010 when the President ran for the second time, he fine-tuned his vision for the future further. He identified 5 key areas to make Sri Lanka a maritime hub (because we are an island) an aviation hub, a knowledge hub, a commercial hub and an energy hub. Sri Lanka’s entire development will be focused on these 5 areas.
What does being an aviation hub involve? Is it a refueling hub, a passenger hub, a maintenance hub or maybe all of them?
It is about everything. Sri Lanka has a strategic location so we are focusing on making the country an aviation hub. We are going to concentrate on increasing passenger numbers, after the security situation improved in 2009. There has been a vast influx of passengers coming into the country. Tourism is really booming. At the end of 2010 we recorded something like 667,000 tourists coming into the country via the airport. The total number of passengers arriving via the international airport was close to 5.3 million, which is a vast increase. We are moving towards becoming an aviation hub and we are going to focus on 3 areas. This is the only international airport we have at the moment, so I will discuss this first. Then I will move towards the other international airports we are going to develop. The first aircraft will be airborne from the … international airport at the end of 2012.
Bandara international airport was built in the 1980s so the runway needs to be renovated. The capacity here is 6 million passengers per annum. We have a 3,400 meters long runway and at the moment we are handling 25 arrivals and departures an hour. So with BIA and the boom in tourism, we decided to improve the airport. Over the past 2 years we have engaged in so many projects to improve this area. We have expanded the lounges and developed a 24 hour four star transit hotel in the airport with a spa. We have also added more baggage belts to receive this additional influx. We have also identified certain key areas for transport. We have benchmarked the airport against others so we can improve standards. When a passenger touches down into the airport, we want them to be out within 15 minutes. Things are improving every day. Any passenger who comes into Colombo has a taxi or bus service available and we have recently introduced an express train service close to the Hilton Hotel in Colombo. We are planning to extend this train service to other areas as well. Groups of tourists can also hire the train to go to different areas. It has a capacity for 90 passengers with their luggage.
We are also building a domestic terminal inside the international airport which will be ready by next January. Airports cannot operate in isolation; they have to be airport cities, so there are a lot of other projects to expand the area around the hotel. We wanted to develop a 300 room transit hotel close to the airport. Now more and more airlines are flying into Sri Lanka, so they need this hotel. We want investors to come in and engage in joint ventures and PPPs (public-private partnerships).
Could you please tell our readers about these foreign investors and the benefits involved in attracting these investors?
They need to have some kind of partnership with the country. Foreign investments are most welcome in this country; even in the aviation sector. Like I said, one project is a 300 room project very close to the airport in a very important location. It is a very viable project. We also want to put up another tax-free shopping mall connected to the airport. It is a medium-sized project under US$50 million. We want a mall because some of the best garments in the world are produced here.
More and more investors are coming into Sri Lanka on their corporate jets. I think this has increased by 29%. We have another airport about 15 miles away from here called Roc Malana Airport 16:00 and we want to divert these small jets here. We want to make that airport a city airport. In the first stage it is only going to be for corporate jets and small aircraft but in the second stage we want budget airlines as well. The second phase is open to PPPs in order to improve the airport.
The second international airport is a US$209 million project (phase 1). The land area is 800 hectares, which is huge. That is an upcoming area. In phase 1 it is going to be for 1 million passengers and 150,000 metric tons of cargo initially, but we are planning phase 2 as well. In 2018 we are aiming have 5 million passengers altogether and 200,000 metric tons from that airport. The runway length is 3,400 m by 75 m and any aircraft in the world, including the A-380 can land on the runway. That will encourage A-380 operators to come to this airport to land there. The southern highway is going to come up very soon (in a couple of weeks). We are going to market the airport at 60% cargo and 40% passengers initially.
We are developing an expressway which will go from the airport to Colombo city. It will be completed by the 1st quarter of 2012 and it will only take 22 minutes to get from the airport to the city. It is going to be a toll road. We want aviation-related industries to come over to Matale such as flying academies and aviation repair centers.
Do you have any international partnerships?
We can have international partnerships for baggage belts etc. We get foreign companies to supply them; we do not manufacture them internally. That can be done. I also wanted to mention strategically this airport is going to be 20 miles away from the port and from there a famous Arugam Bay is just about a 3 hour drive. The airport is going to be an eco-friendly green airport.
We would like courier companies like DHL, Fedex and UPS to come and partner with us. Fedex flies all over the world, so we would be on the world map. We can offer them very attractive rates for land and space.
Space is one of the strengths of Matale airport compared to other airports.
Yes. That is why we wanted to market this. For example, the port is 20 miles away from the airport so it is going to be a commercial sea and air transshipment park. There will be industrial parks and international warehousing complexes as well as leisure and aviation-related industries in that area. The road is going to be connected to the eastern province as well. The southern highway will be extended to the eastern province which is great for social development. The best beaches are there. I think the tourism industry will really develop.
Aviation, tourism, commerce and trade go together and develop around the airport. This is very important. So many direct and indirect jobs are going to be created as a result of this, in the whole area. About 27% of tourists are from the southern province. There are so many advantages for them. I am really looking forward to it. Please tell investors to fly into the airport for the charter inauguration ceremony in 2012. Whoever comes on the first flight will have their names displayed there permanently. I do not think that anyone will get that honor anywhere else.
when the time comes for you to step down from the position you are holding today, what would you like to have achieved and what would you like your legacy to be?
Universal News would like to thank Bandula Jayasekara for his invaluable support during the making of this report