Sri Lanka’s Civil Aviation Authority is gearing up to operate commercial flights from the island’s northern city of Jaffna to select Indian cities. Preparations are on to commence flights from mid-October, according to officials.
Flights would run from Palaly airport in Jaffna Peninsula, to Kochi, Mumbai and New Delhi. “We are working according to the directive from the Transport and Civil Aviation Ministry,” a senior official from the Civil Aviation Authority told The Hindu .
A “technical team” from India is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka next week to study the facilities in the airport, according to Colombo-based official sources.
The development of the Palaly airport, some 20 km north of Jaffna town, has been on the cards for some years now. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has, on multiple occasions, spoken of proposals to upgrade the facility into an international airport, by expanding its current run way to accommodate large passenger aircrafts. An upgraded airport is expected to boost investment prospects in the war-battered Northern Province, in addition to facilitating greater trade activity.
Though possible grant assistance from India, for the “joint development” of the airport, was discussed in the past, no official agreement or document has so far been signed in this regard.
In September 2018, then Minister for Transport and Civil Aviation Nimal Siripala De Silva told Parliament that India had no role in the project, contradicting earlier messages that came out both from Colombo and New Delhi.
Recently, Arjuna Ranatunga, who helms the Ministry now, told media that the Sri Lankan government would spend LKR 3 billion to convert Palaly from a regional to an international airport.
News of flights from their city to India has brought cheer among Jaffna residents, particularly the business community. “This is a great initiative and very welcome in our city. The direct connectivity will certainly boost trade and open up more avenues for investment,” said K. Vignesh, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industries of Yarlpanam [Jaffna].
However, he pointed to two “drawbacks”. “From what we are hearing, it seems that the initial flights will connect Jaffna to New Delhi, Mumbai and Cochin. But we would really benefit from a connection to Chennai,” he told The Hindu .
Several residents of the north are frequent travellers to different cities in Tamil Nadu. They often go on business, or in order to visit temples, to shop or for medical treatment.“Moreover, they say that these flights may have a baggage allowance of 14 kg. It has to be increased to 30 kg like in international flights, so that it can help visitors and traders,” Mr. Vignesh said.
Observing that the service might help Tamil diaspora travelling to their hometown, he said they might prefer flying into Jaffna directly, rather than to Colombo from where they would have to go to Jaffna mostly by rail or road, taking six to eight hours.
According to Vivekananthan Niranjan of the Jaffna Managers’ Forum, Jaffna’s GDP growth is much slower compared to the rest of the country. “We hope that the new flight services will help accelerate growth in the region and bring employment opportunities for our youth,” he said.