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Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) is Poised to Become a Hub for International Ship Crew Changes

May 28, 2020

Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Limited (AASL) is poised to take the full advantage of connecting the maritime and the aviation industries. A special charter flight, Boeing 737-800 operated by Enter Air arrived at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) on 28th May 2020 from Brussels, Belgium and it was  due to transfer 43 crew members to a cruise ship anchored at Galle Harbor in Southern Sri Lanka. Meanwhile 35 ship crew members also departed on the return flight. AASL had made all the required arrangements to provide accommodation facilities for the crew rest in strict accordance with the safety guidelines of the Sri Lanka Health Authorities. 

GAC Shipping, as appointed by the vessel owners, is the agent for the vessels and crew change operation in Sri Lanka, while CMB flight services support them as the handling agent. Earlier in May (3rd May 2020), a special Charter passenger flight, Boeing 767-300 ER, was operated to MRIA from Amsterdam, the Netherlands to transfer 235 crew members to a cruise ship that was also anchored at Galle Harbor in Southern Sri Lanka. 

According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), more than 90% of global air routes are hit by travel restrictions. Neither the crew can return home following their tours of duty nor the new crew can be flown into replace them. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) jointly called on the government srecently to take urgent measures to facilitate crew change flights for seafarers. Shipping is vital to them a intenance of global supply chains. However, due to the prevailing climate, the safety and wellbeing of the ship crew and the safe operation of maritime tradeare compromised. About 100,000 merchant seafarers need to be changed over every month from the ships on which they operate to ensure compliance with the international maritime regulations protecting the safety, health, and welfare. The aviation and maritime transport industries are the lifeline of the global economy. The IATA and the ICS are working with their global regulators, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) respectively on recommendations to governments about standardized procedures and protocols for positioning crew in line with COVID-19 safety and precautionary procedures. About 90% of global trade volume is delivered by ships while airlines carry about 35% of the global trade by value. G20 governments, at their recent emergency meetings, identified the need to prioritize air and sea logistic networks. IATA has emphasized the need and importance of identifying key airports close to major shipping lanes that have direct air connections to countries that provide most of the world’s shipping crew. China, India, the Philippines and countries in the EU and eastern Europe are home to 80% of the global merchant naval crew. Sri Lanka, in the current context, therefore, has a significant competitive advantage to exploitthese opportunities. 

Mr. Shehan Sumanasekara, Director, AASL said “The strategic importance of Sri Lanka’s geographical location at the southern most tip of the Indian Ocean right in the center of aviation and maritime routes connecting the East and the West and the newly developed infrastructure such as the southern expressway have encouraged the international maritime and aviation industry players to choose the MRIA as a destination for international ship crew changes,” 

Because of the strategic location, improved service levels of international airports, seaports and the service providers, Sri Lanka is becoming a popular destination in the international maritime and aviation industries. Another key factor behind this has been the developed road network connecting the airports and the seaports such as the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa International Seaport and the Galle harbor.  The fully-fledged Magampura seaport can serve ships sailing along the East-West shipping routesix to ten nautical miles (19 km) off the coast of the south of Hambantota by providing bunkering, ship repair, shipbuilding, and crew change facilities, etc. 

Major General (Rtd) G. A. Chandrasiri, Chairman of AASL sums it up all well in the following statement;“As the civil airport operator, AASL has capitalized in promoting MRIA for international ship crew changes. We have made all the necessary arrangements and taken every precautionary measure to facilitate the passenger arrival and transferring process as per the guidelines of the Sri Lanka health authorities.We are encouraging the international maritime organizations, airline operators and airlines to get the advantage of the strategic location of our international airports and seaports for we facilitate the operations to the best of our ability”.

Considering the unique competitive advantages of MRIA such as the proximity to unique tourism destinations in the Southern and the Eastern provinces, the availability of land to attract lucrative investments for aviation-related business ventures, synergy for sea-air transshipment and cargo development, AASL is in the process of developing the airport to be the most preferred exotic tourism-based destination in the near future.