New Airport Connects Chennai and Jaffna After 40 Years as Air India Flight Makes First Landing

Bengaluru: It takes less than 30 minutes to undertake a journey from Chennai to Jaffna by air. But it took an Air India flight more than 40 years to cover that distance.

On Thursday, a small Alliance Air ATR flight — a subsidiary of Air India – in Chennai made its maiden landing at the newly upgraded Jaffna International Airport at Palaly, 20 km north of Jaffna city of Sri Lanka, opening with it a new chapter in the 2,000-year-old relationship between the two nations.

Equipped with a 2.3-km runway, Sri Lanka’s third international airport was declared open by President Maithripala Sirisena after the landing of the first flight from India.

Welcoming the move, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar took to Twitter to congratulate Air India.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jaffna, the Tamil heartland in Sri Lanka, had well-connected aerial routes with India, with both Air India and Ceylon Airways operating between the two countries. It was discontinued in the late 1970s when the 30-year Eelam war for a separate homeland for Tamils forced the Sri Lankan government to shut all international operations at the airport.

The people of Jaffna, who have both cultural and familial relationships with India, had been demanding that the airport be reopened for public transport since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) in 2009. The distance between Jaffna and Colombo is 370 km and a journey of six to eight hours by road or train.

The Sri Lankan government has spent a few hundred crores to build a new runway for the safe landing of bigger flights at the airport managed by the Sri Lankan Air Force. Recently, it was upgraded to an international airport by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The inauguration ceremony was attended by Wickremesinghe, Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation Arjuna Ranatunga, and a number of other dignitaries. The Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka was also present.

Initially flights from Chennai, Trichy and Kochi will fly to Jaffna. Later, governments of both countries want to extend it to other major cities in India, such as Bengaluru, Coimbatore, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi.

The Sri Lankan government has already declared Batticaloa airport on the east coast as its fourth international airport. It is likely to be opened for flights from India soon.

Northern and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka have a Tamil population of more than 20 lakh. Direct flights from India to these two cities is expected to boost tourism and trade in the Tamil-dominated areas. Both provinces have pristine beaches and historic places.

Sri Lanka earlier had just two international airports – Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo and Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport at Hambanthota in the south. But no flights operate out of the latter.