Sri Lanka looks to offload world’s emptiest airport
October 9, 2017 09:00 am
A visitor arriving at Sri Lanka’s massive Mahinda Rajapaksa airfield airport on Sunday would find a whole lot of emptiness and visible decay, after mounting debt and lack of cash have put a brake on the country’s once-grand aviation ambitions.
Unable to cope with the losses and cost of maintenance, Sri Lanka is now trying to form joint ventures to run its second international airport and cancel an agreement signed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to acquire more aircrafts for its national airline.
“The MRIA is a huge cost to the government,” said G. S. Withanage, secretary of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Civil Aviation.
Considered the world’s most empty international airport, MRIA was built in southern Mattala, the hometown of the controversial man who ruled the island between 2005-2015.
The airport, with a capacity to move one million travelers and 45,000 tons of annual cargo, and whose first phase was financed by a $209 million loan from China’s EXIM Bank, had opened its doors with a lot of fanfare in 2013, and included plans for a second phase to rake up capacity to 12 million by 2016.
However, the airport, part of a massive project to boost Sri Lanka’s tourism potential, failed to take off right from the word go, and today is a study in wasted state resources.
Only one airline, Fly Dubai, uses the facilities of a phantom aerodrome that has been turned into a tourist attraction for visitors who can buy a ticket for less than a dollar to see the installations inside.
“It’s a huge loss of money for the country,” Withanage added.
The Sri Lankan government had floated a tender at the beginning of the year, which failed to evince interest among investors, until recently when an unsolicited proposal from the Indian government landed on their desks.
While EFE was unable to get a comment from the Indian embassy, experts say the proposal might be an effort to offset China’s growing influence in the island nation.
The Sri Lankan authorities are now planning to form a joint venture with India, which has been willing to acquire shares worth $205 million of the $293 million airport.
“We have asked the Indian representatives to give us a full proposal, but we have not received the offer yet,” said Withanage, adding that the negotiation will start at the end of an ongoing due diligence.
Sri Lanka’s aviation woes, however, do not end with offloading its failed international airport, for it is still struggling to cancel the acquisition of the last four aircraft it acquired from the European consortium Airbus as part of a $2.5 billion contract to renew the fleet of the state-owned Sri Lankan Airlines.
The company has already canceled the acquisition of four other aircraft earlier this year worth $98 million, which impacted directly on the airline’s accounts, which closed the fiscal year last March with a loss of $181.2 million as compared to $78 million the previous year.
“There is an agreement for the purchase of four A350-900 for delivery in 2020, we do not need these aircraft and we would like to find a solution with Airbus,” Sri Lankan Airlines President Suren Ratwatte told EFE.
A committee headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe currently oversees the airline’s restructuring and restructuring, in which the Sri Lankan government would welcome private capital inflow, but as with the airport, attempts to find a bidder have failed so far.