Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA), once dubbed “the loneliest airport in the world”, yesterday become even lonelier when the only airline flying there ceased services.
Owing to a combination of bird strikes and commercial viability, Dubai-based budget carrier Flydubai has stopped flights to Mattala, located in Sri Lanka’s southern town of Hambantota, from Monday onwards. It was the only airline flying there since the airport’s opening in 2013.
“Bird strikes have led to costly repairs, and we have only an average of 13 passengers per flight to Mattala,” said an officer at Flydubai’s Colombo office, who declined to be named.
The airline has faced 21 bird strikes since the inception of flights to Mattala. Each time this happens, the airlines is forced to heli-transport an engineer from Colombo, 260 km away. In one instance, an engine even had to be replaced.
“Mattala doesn’t have proper infrastructure (nor) engineers to handle this type of crisis,” he said, adding that apart from costly bird strikes, it was also commercially unviable to continue this route. Flydubai will however continue its four-times daily flights on the Colombo-Dubai sector.
The officer said while they are considering resuming flights in December to Mattala, this is also contingent on the airport being upgraded with bird alarms, and better passenger loads. “We are also hoping to attract hotels in the areas with more charter flights,” he said.
Airline and travel trade industry officials said the Mattala airport would have succeeded if there was enough international marketing and promotion. “No one marketed this airport, otherwise it may have attracted airlines since its closer from Mattala for tourists to visit popular sites in Sri Lanka, then coming to Colombo,” an industry member said.
MRIA was built by the former regime in the hometown of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, opening to much fanfare on an old wildlife sanctuary of birds and elephants.
Initially five airlines were using MRIA – SriLankan Airlines, budget carrier Mihin Lanka, Abu Dhabi-based Rotana Jet, Air Arabia and Flydubai. Gradually others pulled out due to low passenger loads from Mattala, while Flydubai, which also operated a few wedding charters, continued operating there.
The government has been looking for a foreign party to manage the airport and industry sources said India was interested in striking a deal. Sri Lankan migrant workers make up most of the traffic to and from the Middle East.