Palai Airport

Palaly is an important airport for North of Sri Lanka and is at present used by the forces and civilian aircraft connecting Jaffna Peninsula with the rest of the country. Sri Lanka needs to develop this airstrip in Jaffna to an international airport as part of the development of the North. The National Government has plans to upgrade it to an international airport by providing additional facilities such as customs and immigration to provide regular domestic and international flights. To cater for the development of the region it would be necessary to have cargo terminal facilities to enable the airport to handle export cargo. It would need to have advanced cargo facilities and provide the best-value services to airport users in the most efficient and effective manner. This involves providing store facilities for cargo after customs clearance and prior to loading on the aircraft. Similarly import cargo that is offloaded needs to be in bond before the consignee decides to take delivery. Areas have to be kept aside for examination of export and import cargo by the airport authorities. Designated areas or sheds may be given to airlines or freight forward ring agencies. To enhance land-use and enable economies of scale in airport support and related cargo services with accepted international and industry standards.

Looking back at the history of the Airport, during World War II the British Royal Air Force built an airfield in Palaly. The airfield was after the war taken over by the Department of Civil Aviation. After independence the airport provided domestic flights to Colombo and international flights to south India. The civil war put an end to civilian flights at the airport. A Sri Lanka Air Force detachment moved onto the site around 1976 and site became an Air Field Unit in January 1982. The airport served as major facility for the Sri Lankan military during the civil war. During the early 1990s the airport and surrounding covered an area of about 25 square kilometers were declared a High Security Zone and all the residents were expelled. It was the only government controlled territory on the Valikamam region in Jaffna Peninsula. After the Valikamam was recaptured by the military in 1995 the airport served as a vital link between Jaffna and rest of the country. In 1996 private airlines started operating flights for civilians between Jaffna and Colombo, but operations ceased soon as it was not profitable. Civilian flights resumed from the airport in 2002 with the ceasefire and started operating flights for civilians between Jaffna and Colombo. A new passenger terminal was opened on 4 January 2013. Limited resettlement of the residents expelled began in 2002, but was never completed. In 2013 the Government attempted on a legal footing claiming that the land was needed for a “public purpose” and that the previous inhabitants of the land could not be found. 2176 previous inhabitants of the land came forward to challenge this ruling in court and their case is still pending. With the court case on the airport site pending, it is necessary to look beyond for other available alternatives.

In this backdrop, Sri Lanka could learn from Singapore, which possesses one of the most vibrant economies in the world. It was always limited by its minute land area and over the past half-century, the city-state has added onto its total area by a whopping 22% percent, by adding onto the island using earth obtained from quarries, the seabed, and rock purchased from other jurisdictions, and then dumping that rock and earth onto the surrounding seabed until new islands and attachments are formed. Singapore in the past three decades have used artificial land, for Singapore Changi Airport built on reclaimed land on the east end of the island in 1981.

Therefore the state must look into upgrading the Palaly Airport without using any private land. Any development plan must take into account the outstanding land issue with previous inhabitants of the land and as suggested proceed to build the airport facilities to international standards using if necessary reclaimed land.