Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) (IATA: HRI, ICAO: VCRI) is an international airport serving southeast Sri Lanka. It is located in the town of Mattala, 18 km (11 mi) from Hambantota. It is the first greenfield airport and the second international airport in the country, after Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. The airport is named after the Rajapaksa family.
MRIA was opened in March 2013 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ordered the construction of the airport. Initially, several airlines flew to the airport, including SriLankan Airlines which established a hub. However, due to low demand, most of these airlines left Mattala. As of May 2016, three airlines fly from the airport to destinations within Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates.
Due to the low number of flights, it has been proposed to offer long-term aircraft parking services as well as creating flying schools and maintenance services to be offered from the airport. In 2016 the Sri Lankan government called for Expressions of Interest to run commercial activities of the Airport as the airport is not generating enough revenue to pay back the loans. It has been called the "The world's emptiest International Airport" due to its low number of flights despite the large size of the airport. However due to the runway renovations of Bandaranaike International Airport Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) has become busier with at least five flights using the airport daily.
A second international airport for Sri Lanka was considered for various reasons. Congestion was increasing at Bandaranaike International Airport, and an alternate airport was desired. In addition, the Rajapaksa government wanted to revitalise the tourism industry following the civil war. An airport in Hambantota District would be located close to several tourist attractions, including Arugam Bay, Nuwara Eliya and Yala National Park. Hambantota was also the home town of the president at time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It was initially planned to expand Weerawila Airport into an international airport, but the plans were scrapped due to environmental concerns. The site was then moved to Mattala, a small town 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) north of Hambantota.
Strategic Enterprises Management Agency (SEMA) of the government was against creating an international airport in Mattala, and instead recommended the expansion of BIA facilities and improving the Airfield in Puttalam as an emergency landing strip due to lower transport costs, it being already situated near an air corridor, and less environmental damage. However this was overridden by the government.
US$209 million were spent on the project, with $190 million provided by the Chinese government via the Exim Bank of China. Construction of phase one began on 27 November 2009. By the end of February 2012, the construction of the runway, apron and taxiways was completed ahead of schedule.
On 16 October 2012, a Hawker Beechcraft B200 King Air of the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority became the first aircraft to land at the new airport. It was an instrument testing aircraft fitted with ATC testing equipments. The test flights continued for 8 days for testing the ILS and other flight controls fixed in the new airport.
On 24 January 2013, Sri Lanka Minister of Civil Aviation Piyankara Jayaratne said in parliament that the airport would be declared open on 18 March 2013. A SriLankan Airlines Airbus A330-200 landed at the airport on 29 January 2013. This was the second plane to land, shortly followed by an Airbus A320, which carried 125 orphan children from Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo.
In March 2013, the Civil Aviation Authority awarded MRIA international airport certification, allowing it to receive international flights.
The airport was opened for flight operations on 18 March 2013. President Rajapaksa, his ministers, and other dignitaries arrived in a SriLankan Airlines Airbus A340 to attend the inauguration ceremony. The first commercial flight to land at Mattala was SriLankan Airlines Flight 226 from Dubai, followed by an Air Arabia flight from Sharjah and a Flydubai flight from Dubai.
As the access road is rarely used, pieces of the safety net on the access road have been removed to create gateways for cattle to enter the road. The malfunctioning light system makes the road preferable for wild elephants to roam at night and the road is also used to dry pepper harvests.
The unused air cargo terminals were leased by the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) to store the rice bumper harvest from the region which allowed the Airport to make revenues larger than flight-related activities. In 2016, over 300 soldiers, police officers and volunteers were deployed to chase away wild animals from the airport. Fire crackers were used to scare away the animals, however the operation was unsuccessful and a bigger operation was planned.
Due to the runway renovations of Bandaranaike International Airport Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) has become busier with at least five flights using the airport daily. 240 flights had used the MRIA airport bringing in 14,000 passengers since January to early February time period.
Several airlines served Mattala in the beginning, but the majority soon ended service. Air Arabia ended its flights from Sharjah only six weeks after beginning service, citing low demand. SriLankan Airlines operated a hub at the airport until 2015. In triangle routings through Colombo, the airline flew to Bangkok, Beijing, Chennai, Jeddah, Malé, Riyadh, Shanghai, and Tiruchirappalli from Mattala. The hub was closed on 17 January 2015, as the airline was accruing great losses on the routes. Mihin Lanka flew from Mattala to Gaya and Medan but too ended flights.
As of early 2016, two airlines remain at Mattala. Flydubai and Rotana Jet operate triangle routings through Colombo to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively. Cinnamon Air began direct flights to Colombo in May 2016.
The passenger terminal covers 10,000 m2 (110,000 sq ft) and can handle 1 million passengers per year. It has 12 check-in counters and 2 gates equipped with jetways. In addition, the terminal has a restaurant, medical centre, and a lounge for business class passengers.
MRIA has a single runway, 05/23. It measures 3,500 m (11,483 ft), making it capable of receiving the world's largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380.
The air traffic control tower stands at a height of 35 m (115 ft). The airport cargo facility occupies 1,000 m2 (11,000 sq ft) and can handle up to 50,000 tonnes of freight per year.
In 2014, a fuel hydrant system and an aircraft refueling terminal were completed. The fuel hydrant system was built by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) at a cost of USD$7 million, while the refueling terminal was constructed by a Dubai-based construction company at a cost of USD$31 million. Previously, fuel had to be transported by bowser from tanks at Hambantota Port, sometimes resulting in flight delays.
^1 flydubai flight makes an intermediate stop in Colombo, but the airline does not have traffic rights solely between MRIA and Colombo.
Cinnamon Air flights stop in Dickwella, Koggala and Bentota. However, the airline does not sell flights solely between MRIA and these cities
MRIA has been called a white elephant of Mahinda Rajapaksa's presidency. It was part of Rajapaksa's plan to transform Hambantota District into a commercial hub; other projects included a cricket stadium and an international port. However, the plan was considered a pet project of Rajapaksa, as Hambantota District is his home district but is also poor and largely rural.
As a result, there has been low demand for flights from Mattala, and the airport has accrued significant losses. While MRIA is located close to many tourist attractions such as Yala National Park, it lacks adequate transport links.
In 2004 a report produced by the International Air Transport Association claimed that money would be better invested in a second runway at the BIA than a new airport. Aviation experts have claimed that the runway orientation of the airport makes the aircraft face dangerous crosswinds. Sri Lankan pilots were also not consulted when the airport was planned.
In addition, environmentalists have criticised MRIA's being built in an elephant and migratory bird habitat. During the planning stages of the project, environmentalists had warned of the threat to wildlife, but construction went ahead. 2,000 acres of forest were cleared to build the airport, displacing about 200 elephants. Migratory birds, which frequent the area, have been involved in collisions with aircraft approaching or departing from MRIA.
A second stage of expansion was planned but has not commenced as of early 2016. Under this stage, the terminal would be greatly expanded, with the number of jetways raised to 15. In addition, a new hangar and cargo apron would be constructed. Stage 2 would raise MRIA's capacity to 5–6 million passengers per year.On 14 March 2013, a SriLankan Airlines aircraft operating a test flight between Colombo and Mattala collided with a flock of birds on approach. The aircraft was able to land safely.
On 25 March 2013, SriLankan Airlines Flight 114, an Airbus A340-300 flying from Malé to Colombo via Mattala, collided with birds upon takeoff from MRIA. A crack formed in the cockpit windscreen, but the aircraft was able to continue to Colombo.
On 11 January 2014, flydubai Flight 551, a Boeing 737-800 travelling from Colombo to Dubai via Mattala, hit a flock of peacocks during takeoff from MRIA. The aircraft was forced to return to MRIA, and engineers and technicians were flown in from Colombo to inspect it.