From Monday, India and Sri Lanka will resume flights between Chennai and Jaffna, reviving an important connectivity link.
Alliance Air, an Air India subsidiary, is launching the service four times a week. After more than four decades, the air link only ran for four months before the Covid-19 pandemic closed international borders and travel in March 2020.
Jaffna International Airport remained closed after Sri Lanka’s primary airport at Colombo reopened to international flights.
It was India who pushed for the resumption of this link from Sri Lanka’s Tamil north to Tamil Nadu. Meeting of minds on the issue only happened earlier this year, after India offered financial and other assistance to the island nation during its economic meltdown.
The air link could help boost the economy in the northern province, which has been ravaged by civil war. Though it’s been more than a decade since the end of the armed conflict, the area hasn’t recovered much.
It’s expected to boost tourism from southern India to Tamil north Sri Lanka, bringing in valuable foreign exchange for the country’s struggling economy. This could also attract investment to Jaffna and other parts of the northern province (including Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, and Vavuniya) and open trade relations.
It may also be more convenient and cheaper for Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad to get a direct flight from Chennai to Jaffna than to go to Colombo and then head north by train or road for another six hours.
Clearing decks for port planning
It could revive a long-pending plan to make Kankesanthurai, a nearby Sri Lankan navy base, a civilian port with Jaffna airport.
It’s likely one of the reasons why the Sri Lankan government wasn’t keen on reopening Jaffna International Airport, formerly known as Palaly airport after the town where it’s located.
During the civil war, the Palaly airfield, constructed by the British as an RAF base during World War II, served as a vital Sri Lankan military airbase for transporting troops and supplies throughout the northern tract of the island.
A portion of the airport remains in the hands of the military. A claim for compensation or the return of land is still pending against the Sri Lankan government from the original Tamil owners who were evicted to make way for the high-security zone.
As soon as the war ended in 2009, India proposed the establishment of air links between Jaffna and Chennai, but Sri Lanka was still basking in the glory of its victory over the LTTE, and its response was tepid.
Sri Lanka finally consented to the agreement 10 years later, in 2019. In order to redevelop and rename the airport, India made a financial contribution to the development.
In order to enable bigger aircraft to land, a proposal to extend the runway to other airports in southern India, such as Bengaluru, Trivandrum and Hyderabad, would need to wait until the runway is upgraded from its current 1.4 km to a planned 2.3 km.