Sri Lanka’s Deserted $200 Million International Airport

Filed Under: Misc.

I’ve known about this airport for years, though just realized I had never written about it, so I figure it’s time for a post. When you think of flying to Sri Lanka you probably think of Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport. I’ve been there a countless number of times. But that’s not Sri Lanka’s only international airport.

Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport

The fascinating story of Mattala (not so) International Airport

In 2013, Sri Lanka opened Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, named after the country’s prime minister at the time, which was intended to be the country’s second international airport. Roughly $209 million was spent on constructing the airport.

The airport was designed to accommodate one million passengers per year, and has a runway that’s over 11,000 feet, meaning it could accommodate an A380. The terminal is 110,000 square feet, has two gates, and 12 check-in counters.

That was only the beginning. In 2016 the airport was supposed to undergo a second phase of expansion, whereby they were going to increase the number of gates to 15, so that they could accommodate up to six million passengers per year. For context in terms of how optimistic they were being, Colombo Airport has about 30 airlines, and serves just under 10 million passengers per year.

When the airport opened, they even put together a super long and outright strange promotional video (at 6:03 is he proposing to her in the duty free store, or what is going on?!).

No airlines fly to Mattala Airport

There’s only one small problem — over five years after the airport opened, it has no commercial flights. Zero. None. Nada. The airport initially had some service, and was even supposed to be a hub for SriLankan Airlines, but that didn’t last for long:

  • Air Arabia flew there from Sharjah, but cut service only six weeks after starting it, due to low demand
  • Until 2015, SriLankan Airlines operated “triangle” routes to the airport, where some of their international flights would operate via Mattala enroute to Colombo
  • Mihin Lanka briefly flew there, but has since ceased operations
  • Cinnamon Air flew between Colombo and Mattala from 2016 until 2018, but ended the service due to lack of demand and bird strikes
  • FlyDubai operated a daily triangle flight between Mattala, Colombo, and Dubai, but ended that flight earlier this year due to lack of demand

The ~100 mile flight from Colombo to Mattala

With FlyDubai having pulled out of the airport, there are now no remaining commercial flights. The airport has still seen a few flights in the meantime, though. For example, in April an Antonov 225 landed there to refuel and so the pilots could rest between flights, though sadly that’s about the extent of the traffic they’ve seen.

I also find the point about bird strikes to be interesting, given that it was cited as a reason for cutting the route for one airline. When you look at the airport’s Wikipedia page you’ll see that it had three “incidents,” and all three involved bird strikes of some sort. It seems like that’s a serious issue for the airport.

Why was Mattala Airport a failure?

The airport was near the home of the former Sri Lankan president who the airport was named after, so it sure seems like there was some hometown pride involved in the decision to build an airport there. The region wasn’t actually very populated and didn’t have great infrastructure at the time.

Instead, Sri Lanka had ambitious goals for the region, and wanted to turn it into an economic powerhouse, with a huge port, foreign investments, and tourist. Long story short, that never materialized, largely because of politics. Forbes has a long story about why the airport didn’t work out, which is worth a read.

But even if things had worked out differently, this is still very much a “chicken and egg” case. What comes first — a destination that needs international service, or international flights to a destination that is hoping to grow?

What’s next for Mattala Airport?

This story is actually still developing.

For now the airport is being maintained meticulously, despite the lack of passengers.

The primary investor in the airport was China, so it’s most of their money that’s in the project. There have been rumors that India would be taking over the airport, though recent media reports suggest that this isn’t happening after all. So right now the airport’s future is uncertain, and it sure looks like nothing is changing, given that growth in the region didn’t work out as planned.

Bottom line

This is far from the only “ghost” airport in the world. However, typically airports that end up in this situation were popular at some point, and for whatever reason over time weren’t needed anymore. This could be because the changing population of a destination, a nearby airport being opened or, or a bunch of other factors.

This is one of the only airports I know of that failed from the very beginning. It’s unfortunate that so much money was wasted.

I’m curious if eventually they’ll just shut off the lights at the airport, lock it up, and call it a day, or what’s next.

I’m sort of sad I never had the chance to fly there, though.

(Featured image courtesy of Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyeratne)

  1. Don‘t forget Kassel-Calden (KSF). An utterly useless airport close to FRA. It still has (very) limited commercial activity but certainly not enough to justify its existence. Should have built BER properly instead…

  2. I think this was just a boondoggle at the behest of the former President to kick some money back to his local supporters (and himself). SL has essentially sold itself to China.

  3. Interesting, but a number of us are waiting for your strategy on Marriott travel packages ahead of the merger. You’ve promised that a post would be forthcoming within a day several times during the past week.

  4. It’s a story of Chinese power projection flexing its muscles at India (and corruption, natch).

  5. Politicians that are tied to construction are usually corrupt thieves. Whether it’s airport or hotel.

    All such politicians and their should be publicly flogged on live television.

  6. I flew out of Mattala once in 2013, on SriLankan’s Colombo-Mattala-Riyadh triangle flight. It was surreal: I believe I was the only departing passenger that day. They had a little room a bit like a smoker’s lounge for business class passengers, though of course that hardly mattered when there were no other passengers. I don’t remember there being any other amenities. There are no taxiways, so the plane had to taxi down the runway itself, do a u-turn, then take off. Feels like that design choice would have ultimately hampered the airport’s growth plans…

  7. I suspect a China angle here. Maybe the airport was given to China for some debt relief? There is quite a bit of China meddling going on in Sri Lanka.

  8. “In 2013, Sri Lanka opened Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, named after the country’s prime minister at the time” – should be president (as stated elsewhere in the post), not prime minister.

  9. I rather like Sri Lankan Airlines. The offer reasonable o/w J fares at or about 50% of the rtn, making it possible to create some good options from Thailand to Melbourne and avoid the dreaded Jetstar; also the fares to Europe and Dubai can be good.
    But the Airport has long since passed its use by date: it’s crowded, slow and grubby. The lounge is awful ( Serendip). They need to renovate and extend it, rather than open another ( particularly as the other one I see even further away from Colombo. The current airport hasn’t changed very much for more than 20 years.
    Of course China is up to its neck in dodgy deals: just like it is in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Fiji, Tonga, Burma, most of Africa. Playing Lady Bountiful but really seeking to be the new colonial power.

  10. When CMB was having major runway repairs ~April 2017 Sri Lankan operated a large amount of triangle routes through Mattala. Basically they had to get big planes out from CMB before the daily construction blocked full runway use, but they couldn’t get altered landing times approved at the destinations. So, there were ~6 hour layovers at this airport, purely to wait for a landing slot elsewhere.

    I flew CMB – HRI 6 hour layover there, then to PVG. The business lounge was tiny. Not too different than other contract lounges at CMB. They fed all passengers in the terminal a free meal. There were a few shops open. There was a outdoor balcony you could sit on, and see school groups coming to tour the place. There didn’t seem to be any mechanism to clear customs. The Shangri La Hambantota resort isnt far, and I thought I could go there for lunch, but there was no way to clear customs and leave the airport. Elephants on the runway were another issue here, we saw one not far away.

  11. There’s probably more than meets the eye going on here. India and China don’t get along particularly well, and India and Sri Lanka have had strained relations in the not-so-recent past, so this is very likely Chinese meddling at some level. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Chinese have some kind of pay-for-play scheme going on to keep the airport afloat despite its disuse.

    I also suspect a corruption/boondoggle angle, given the proximity to the former president’s hometown.

  12. The Chinese are assholes.

    They have never met a real estate they haven’t wanted to grab. First Tibet then Hong Kong then south China sea. Now srilanka, Myanmar, a lot of africa and now south america. They always devastate wild life in most world due to primitive medicine beliefs and overfish because they are selfish brats.

    All the while faking about how they were wronged by the Japanese in ww2 while they are getting ready to do the same to the rest of the world now.

    Beware the Chinese.

  13. Ghost airports never used? How about the passenger terminal finished in 2012 for Stepanakert?

  14. Mr. Lucky, Thank you for a great report on this “Ghost” Airport.

    Pity it did not work out well, this part of Sri Lanka would be so well served for tourism if flights could bypass Colombo and fly directly into region.

  15. Beja in Portugal is another of those cases. It was supposed to work as a second airport serving Lisbon but it’s way too far to work like that. No airlines ever showed interest to fly there….so yes, it’s a huge failure from the beginning. It’s now a glorified parking lot for Hifly planes

  16. Some commenters are comparing this to Montreal Mirabel, but I’d say it’s worse. At least Mirabel is used as a cargo airport by several airlines, and is home to Bombardier and Bell production facilities.

    This is closer to the ghost airports in Spain like Ciudad Real, but no Top Gear (well, The Grand Tour now…) for them.

  17. There was some discussion several years ago in various press outlets that the true purpose of this airport’s construction by China was to create a useless infrastructure investment which Sri Lanka couldn’t possibly justify paying off, and then work a deal that China could create a long-long term lease and instantly open its second Indian Ocean Area airbase. (Djibouti was the first one).

    Ahhh, geopolitics.

  18. @Debit and @SST
    You are absolutely correct about China. Add Pakistan to that list. The OBOR construction thru the Himalayas into Pak has already made Pak into another vassal ‘state’ of China. Pretty soon, you are going to hear about ‘uprisings’ against Chinese operators a la Tibet, only this time the local populace won’t be buddhists !
    But i have to grudgingly acknowledge that the Dragon’s patience is paying off in spades all around the globe.

  19. Montréal Mirabel was created for the 1976 Olympics because Dorval airport was wholly inadequate for the traffic. It was used for all non-US international traffic, and a second phase was planned to completely eliminate Dorval and move all traffic to Mirabel. Unfortunately, locals hated Mirabel due to distance and lack of transit, and the international airlines hated Mirabel because they had little connecting North American service, which remained at Dorval. Montreal’s economy was terrible a few years after the Olympics, and the decision was made to consolidate, but to do it at Dorval and expand there. Mirabel therefore was abandoned as a major passenger terminal, and moved to strictly freight. Dorval now has new, improved terminals and hopefully metro service one of these days. I don’t live in Montreal, but visit often, so my details here might be off a little. I do remember that pre-2000 Dorval was very, very dated.

  20. Lucky’s chicken and egg analogy is excellent. The airport was built in an area that was not long ago rich in wildlife including elephants, leopards, and birds — hence the occasional sighting of pachyderms ambling not far from the runway and the bird strikes. Although the project had significant ecological downsides, to be fair, there weren’t too many other spots to choose from if you were going to build an airport. There is and has been for a long time a small airport nearby at Wirawila but it is very close to a bird sanctuary and that site, for I believe both ecological and safety reasons, was avoided.

    One could fairly accuse then-President Rajapakse, a man with a massive ego, of proceeding with a vanity project. There are also indications that Rajapakse’s family benefitted from the money that poured in for these huge infrastructure projects but that has never been proven in a court of law. Despite the apparent senselessness of locating an airport in the middle of seemingly nowhere, if you factored in the burgeoning tourist infrastructure in the south of the island and Rajapakse’s plans for bringing economic development to a long-neglected area, Mattala Airport is perhaps not the white elephant it seems.

    Tourists visiting southern beach destinations, for example, could fly directly to Mattala and get to their resorts in an hour or so once good local roads were upgraded. At present going to the southern beaches and wildlife parks such as Yala and Uda Walawe (which is very close to Mattala) requires a much longer trip despite the presence of a 4-lane highway to the south because it involves negotiating Colombo traffic. (A connection between the Airport Highway and the Southern Highway would help, though). At present, the pro-Western government in Colombo is in no mood to support infrastructure that would help burnish Rajapakse’s image and I think that is another reason Mattala is presently in the doghouse. But a working Mattala Airport will surely help tourism in the south in time.

    Those in this thread maligning China seem unaware of the important role that country played in destroying the Tamil Tigers, a role for which Sri Lankans will be forever grateful. By contrast, Western support to defeat the terrorists in Sri Lanka waned after the Tigers bought out the West’s politicians with funds raised by shaking down the Tamil diaspora in the West (according to a Human Rights Watch report). India was far worse; it was this country which sponsored and trained these terrorists and Sri Lanka paid a heavy price in lives and treasure. Indian foreign policy has always been scabrous towards its neighbours and I think most Sri Lankans are happy to balance the Indians with the Chinese. As for #Debit accusing the Chinese of predatory imperialism, come off it! The West’s behaviour in the last five centuries has been infinitely worse. I’ll take China any day.

  21. The biggest stupidity of this Rajapaksha-ego-and-$$$-project is that it is near various wildlife areas. Hence the bird-strikes and wildlife wandering in the vicinity. Only stupid, vain and greedy politicians can think of such a project.

  22. This whole story is a big lie. The air port has no planes because the present Sri Lankan prime minister Ranil Wicramasinghe wanted it to be like that. In fact immediately after he became the prime minister. he filled the air port with bags of paddy to show the citizens of Sri lanka what he thought of the previous president Mahinda Rajapakshe. It took only about one year for people to realize their mistake of choosing Ranil as the prime minister. This arrogant and useless ( my opinion) has turn back sri lanka to pre terrorism era of 1980. Please note that my opinion is not politically motivated.

  23. Indopithecus and Lakpriya Karunaratne are right. The author of this article is on the right track with the “chicken and egg” analogy. There have been plans to develop the South of Sri Lanka well before the Rajapaksha era, but once the Rajapakshas actually executed these plans, it became the priority of the opposing politcal party to undermine all those efforts. As for the “awful” influence of the Chinese that everyone is alluding to here, the local populace is far more willing to be bombed by Chinese-built developments and infrastructure than be bombed with the austerity measures and impeded development that’s currently taking place under the patronage of the Western-backed IMF and World Bank. People are always so eager to paint the Chinese as villains, while completely failing to recognise that not only are they doing the same things the West is doing, but also doing it on far more lenient and acceptable terms.

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