Welcome to Sri Lanka via Mattala: SriLankan Airlines Chief

Wednesday, 20 March 2013 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • The Hambantota Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) is Sri Lanka’s second international airport, with its wondrous new sky gate which has currently finished its first phase. The official opening to the nation was on 18 March 2013. I had a very rare opportunity to talk directly to the Chairman of SriLankan Airlines Nishantha Wickramasinghe at a historic moment for the airline industry in Sri Lanka. He has been one of the instrumental figures of this mission from the initial stages and therefore has thorough knowledge and first hand information about the MRIA. Following are excerpts from the interview:

By Janaka Alahapperuma from London

Q: Was everything in place to welcome the inaugural landing at Mattala’s new airport?

A: Yes, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) is a classic example of a vision becoming a reality; a dream come true in a developing nation. It is ready now and fully functional and meets all international standards. An A330 aircraft from the SriLankan fleet did a test landing at Mattala on 29 January 2013.

The flight took off from the Katunayake airport (BIA) and arrived at the Mattala airport. The objective of this was to test the readiness of MRIA for commercial operations and the official landing this month. The total movement was smooth and all navigational systems at MRIA were in order, as confirmed by the highly qualified staff of SriLankan Airlines, our national carrier.

They were highly satisfied with the flight operations and confirmed MRIA to be ready for commercial flight operations, from the pilots’ point of view. The Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority also confirmed that his decision to allow this wide body aircraft (A330) to land at MRIA has proven to be correct as proved by the smooth landing and taking off of the aircraft. So Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport is now ready for flight operations.

Q: What are the facilities available on ground?

We have lined up every modern facility, that use highly sophisticated and up to date technology on the ground at MRIA. Our new international airport is in the same league as the most developed airports around the world. One of the most attractive features is the 3,500 metre long run way which has been designated a Code: F by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Mattala is attracting interest from Airbus A330, and possibly 380, operators and airport agencies

Q: Sri Lanka’s second international airport was built in southern part of the country. What do you think about the location? Was it a wise move to go deep south?

Yes, it is. In the past, we didn’t have two things. Firstly, we didn’t have an alternative international airport to Katunayake. So there was a

SriLankan Airlines Chairman Nishantha Wickramasinghe

demand for it.  If there was bad weather or if it was not possible to land airplanes, we had to divert them to the nearest place in India. So there was an immediate need for a second airport in our country. 

Secondly, the location of the airport is also important because Mattala is located in the catchment area of many tourist attractions, for example, wildlife, sandy beaches and the sea. Wildlife reserves such as Yala National Park can be reached within an hour by car. By road, in one and half hours or two, you can reach most of the major areas of the country.

You can enjoy one of the best wildlife reserves and some other sanctuaries, which have hundreds of elephants to see, and if you go beyond that, you get to the sea with its beautiful beaches that stretch for miles along the coast. Within half an hour, you can reach one of the world’s most famous whale watching regions and further east, tourists can enjoy international surfing resorts at Arugam Bay.

As you know Sri Lanka has east and west coasts. Naturally, Mattala is based at the very centre of the two. Due to the strategic location, especially during the two monsoon seasons, you can choose where to go, either the west coast or east coast to escape rainy weather.

You will have everything at your doorstep. There will be no reason to go a long way for whale and dolphin watching and to other wildlife reserves when it is not the right season. Therefore tourists coming via Mattala can enjoy the country throughout the year without facing any seasonal variations. Tourists who want to go for pilgrimages at Kataragama and other temples are now able to reach them easily as these places are closer to Mattala.

Tourists looking for precious gems could go to Ratnapura as it has a lot to offer them as it is not far from Mattala. In Nuwara Eliya, you find plains, beautiful scenery, tea estates and so on. So you have a lot to choose from even for shorter holidays. Everything is in close proximity other than the Cultural Triangle in the Anuradhapura area in the North Central Province and the north. 

Q: Do you have the right infrastructure facilities to accommodate all these tourists in that region?

Yes, at the moment I have a list of hotels but it should grow further. By today or tomorrow, there won’t be thousands of tourists flocking to Mattala and the surrounding area. There are a lot of new development plans for local hotels and many other projects are on the horizon.

Take my word for it. Within the next two to three years, there will be a lot changes. This is something similar to supply and demand. If there is demand, infrastructure will grow. I am sure hotel owners have few rooms and if they want to grow bigger, they will develop their hotels and facilities, which some have already done, and some are upgrading their rooms, toilets and other facilities and so on. We will definitely see new hotels being built. New investors will come. It is just a matter of time, and in another couple of years’ time, you will find that this area will be a developed one and will be a major attraction for thousands of tourists.

The Hambantota seaport is in function now. At the same time, the Hambantota district development initiative has already started on the international convention centre, administration complex, an oil refinery and other commercial initiatives. MRIA and the seaport will also form an air-sea transportation hub. This initiative will transform the southern region of Sri Lanka and take it to new heights.

Q: What responsibilities does Sri Lankan Airlines have in Mattala?

All the ground handling will be done by the SriLankan Airlines. That is not only for the national carrier. For all the airlines that fly there, we will be doing the ground handling. We do the catering too. Those are the two main areas we are responsible for at Mattala at the moment. Also as an airline, we are flying to Mattala.

We have a huge Sri Lankan working force in the Middle East. A majority of them are from Southern, Sabaragamuwa, Uva and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. Therefore they will too enjoy many benefits of having an airport closer to their doorstep when going in and out of the country.

Q: Apart from our national carrier, what are the other airlines planning to land at Mattala?

SriLankan Airlines will operate four flights to Maldives (Male), two to Riyadh, two to Beijing and one to Shanghai. Beijing and Shanghai flights will fly via Bangkok. In total, there will be a minimum of 10 departures and 10 arrivals per week from the national carrier alone. Mihin Air will also operate a weekly flight to Buddha Gaya from Mattala starting this week. Emirates based flydubai and Air Arabia will also operate flights to and from Katunayake through Mattala. Airlines like Emirates and Qatar are also interested because of A330 and A380 compatible runway. However, SriLankan Airlines will provide the ground support, catering and other services.

Q: British Airways has decided to fly to Colombo. Have you talked to them about Mattala?

BA from Gatwick, London flies to Male via Colombo and vice versa. We do all the ground handling and catering. It’s revenue for us. It lets them take the first step back into Colombo after a long time. I will definitely talk to them about the advantages they will enjoy when coming to Mattala.

Q: How long do you think it will take to be a fully functional airport up to its full capacity?

From day one it will be fully functional to accommodate any aircraft and thousands of passengers. Let’s face the reality. I know what you mean by fully functional. To be fully functioning means to reach our set targets. The target is at least one landing every hour and one taking off. 30 to 40 planes per day. We are very committed, but to be honest with you, if we reach that target within a year it will be a miracle for a small developing country like Sri Lanka. Competition is very high. We have to convince the other airlines. Tourism in the region is very competitive. Everybody counts, right up to the last dollar.

We have to convince them that there is a market in Sri Lanka. Any airport, especially a second one, won’t pick up over night. They closely monitor our performances. All the airlines do their research before entering a new market. So we all have to put in a team effort to deliver for the sake of our nation. We have huge potential to grow in this sector. The opportunity is there, we just need to grab it. We all have to work hard, not only SriLankan Airlines. Every force must be in place for smooth running. As you are aware, Sri Lanka is one of the safest places for travellers.

Recently, I was in Berlin. The response we received from the foreign travellers was surprising and unbelievable. They all wanted to visit Sri Lanka in the near future. Our demand has increased by nearly 20% and that’s only in Germany. One million passengers would be fantastic, but at least 500,000-600,000 would be great. Then we could say that we have achieved what we wanted to achieve.

I have really been driven mainly by tourism because of this strategically important location. I was in Hong Kong attending a seminar last week. We were talking about 1.5 to two million tourists per year in Sri Lanka.  Hong Kong is one fifth the size of Sri Lanka. They are talking about 35 million tourists per year. That’s the kind of figure they are going to target. Take the nearest holiday destination. Male in the Maldives. They talk about millions and millions. Therefore, my target is the new segment of tourists in this area. It means new target groups and new customer bases.

Q: Do you have plans to reduce operations at BIA?

That is a very good question. I must thank you for asking that. There are some false media reports saying that we have plans to reduce the number of planes in and out of BIA. Few opportunist politicians have charged that the Government has a sinister plan to paralyse the BIA by shifting the high-tech machinery and skilled staff to MRIA. Please remember this. We don’t want to dilute our operations at Katunayake. It is not like cutting a cake in two and giving one half to Mattala and the other half to Katunayake. We have no plans to reduce the business we have in Katunayake. As a country, if we try to do such foolish moves, we won’t be successful. We are looking at completely new businesses in Mattala.

Q: Do you have any plans to upgrade our national carrier?

Yes, when we took over from Emirates, there were no single Business Class flat beds. Flat beds are not luxury. All the airlines from the Far East and Middle East have flat beds and their Business Class is very large. With the revenue we earn, I have set targets of upgrading our flights including the entertainment systems, loungers and ticketing offices.

We have started that but we still have some shortcomings too. We have to compete with the Middle East and Far East, otherwise we can’t grow in this industry. Passengers expect luxury facilities that other airlines are providing. So we can’t operate like a budget airline.

The Government has helped us by providing capital inclusion. My vision is to maintain a young fleet. We have two brand new 320s. Within the next two years, my plan is to replace all the Colombo-London planes with a brand new fleet. All the international airlines have a young fleet including BA. So we must compete with them. With the help of capital inclusion, we will be able to achieve our goals with a brand new fleet. Every passenger would like to get onboard new flights.  They don’t like old ones. We don’t need 50 aircrafts. My target is 30 brand new aircrafts in our fleet by 2016.

By doing so, we have to increase the frequency to other popular destinations. The Middle East is a fantastic destination to get into. Those passengers always request Business Class, nothing else. If there is no Business Class, they use different airlines.

China is another growing market. If we can increase by 1% in China, we wouldn’t have enough hotels to accommodate them. It is a massive market. We have to think of India as well. If we can achieve those targets, Sri Lanka will be on top of the tourism industry. Currently, we have no facilities to have a million customers. We need to increase the infrastructure facilities. However, I am proud to say that 60% of the tourists coming to Sri Lanka were brought in by SriLankan Airlines.

Q: Is it true that CPC has decided not to supply fuel to SriLankan Airlines?

They have the monopoly at the Katunayake airport. Not only does our airline get fuel from them, others buy from them as well. There was a special rate but suddenly, they have increased it by 30%. This happened due to a price increase by a Singaporean company that controls airline fuel prices. But we decided not to go for the increased rate for many reasons. 

In Maldives, not very far from here, the fuel rate is considerably cheap. Other airlines will definitely go there. That’s why the Government has intervened. The President and few ministers discussed this matter and carried out negotiations and came to a settlement. That problem is over now. We only have a few bills to settle and have been given two months worth of credit facilities. So from now on, we settle every bill as it comes.

Q: SriLankan Airline is overstaffed. How will you solve that problem to be a cost effective and profitable airline?

My answer to that is yes and no. SLA is overstaffed today at a certain percentage only in some sections. It is not the technical and not the engineering. It is only in supporting staff but I use them very productively. Don’t forget, we will need more experienced people in the near future when we increase our fleet. So we have to develop and handle our airline in a productive manner. Then we will need every one of them. I am not a person who will give them a golden handshake and say sorry, we don’t need you.

I have to send some staff from here to Mattala and had to employ some from the local crowd because I cannot send everyone from here. Some staff volunteered to go there. We had to provide housing. I have recruited ground handling, ticketing and other staff from the area and have given them three months of training. I have sent the managing and supervisory staff with experience, which drives the business from Katunayake. So I cannot say we are overstaffed now.

Q: What is your opinion on Mihin Lanka?

Mihin Lanka also comes under my authority. It was a failure earlier as a separate unit. The Government wants to enjoy certain synergies. It is and should be a separate profit-making wing for SriLankan airlines. So through working together and sharing synergies like ground handling, catering, ticketing and administration, the unit cost automatically goes down.

Q: Do you have a message for Sri Lankans living abroad?

Yes, I have a message to all Sri Lankans living abroad. Our country is very safe now. Many people visit Sri Lanka frequently. So I request everyone to visit Sri Lanka via Mattala airport if possible. 10 years ago, we never even dreamt of an airport in this part of the country. I want to promote Mattala. That cannot be done within days. I am planning to bring in all my country managers and senior officials to Mattala to use their expertise to upgrade the quality and standard of the airport while smoothly running the BIA.

I wanted to have a few flights flying to Mattala from London, Frankfort and other major European cities and popular destinations around the globe. The plan is to increase the frequency, not to bring in present passengers, mostly new passengers. Please promote Sri Lanka, promote Mattala. Educate your friends, colleagues at work and neighbours in Europe about the facilities and entertainment that we have. 60% of tourists are coming from EU countries. During the winter season, they look for good holiday resorts. Sri Lankan holidays are much cheaper than most other places. The environment is eco-friendly. The area is not polluted.