This article is copied from Daily Mirror of May 7th 2007.
A Sri Lankan Airlines Airbus takes off from the Bandaranaike International Airport, 03 May 2007 as military helicopter gunships wait in the background. Sri Lankan Airlines 04 May 2007 announced the stopping of its night flights out of the airport following fears of a repeat Tamil Tiger air raid on the military airbase which shares a runway with the international airport located at Katunayake, just outside the capital Colombo. AFP
Mixed reactions from private sector experts but there is consensus the move should be temporary with defence authorities asked to get their act together; Lanka’s vision of becoming an air hub gets more remote as India is likely to fast track its efforts
Seen and heard
Since LTTE had, as per some experts, used the full moon light to carry out its air strike in Colombo, the Defence authorities are busy getting the superior 3D radar system in place before the Poson Poya.
At a top level meeting it was disclosed in somewhat lighter vein that privately owned tall buildings should switch off the red signal used to warn commercial aircraft in the hope that LTTE aircrafts without such signals would crash on to one of those buildings and destroy themselves.
With the country plunging into darkness every time after suspected LTTE air raids, experts maintain that the switching off lights was a tactic used during the World War 1 as at that time, lights were used to identify certain landmark locations. These experts said that with night vision technology and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) switching off lights only helps the mission of an enemy aircraft and switching on lights would help country’s defences.
LTTE air attacks-propelled closure of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) from Thursday has caused an equally devastating concern among the country’s private sector which is insisting that the move should be temporary to minimize the serious economic impact.
The Government last week said that the BIA from May 10 would be closed for business from 10.30 p.m. to 4.30 a.m. as a security measure. The move follows the third air attack in a month by the LTTE in the early hours of April 29. This decision also follows leading international airlines beforehand deciding to restrict their services to day flights to ensure safety of their passengers while at least one airline has suspended operations fully.
The recommendation to close the airport at night had apparently come from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which some analysts said could be due to the fact that it had less confidence of security for passenger aircraft flying in and out at night. However it is unlikely that CAA proposed the move without having a consultation with the defence authorities. It is ironic that the country’s intelligence establishment got to know about LTTE’s air power as way back as early 2004 and three years hence the nation is seeing only knee-jerk and amateurish reactions as well as lot of finger pointing at others.
The closure of the only international airport according to many analysts was a big set back as it seriously affects the country’s image globally as well as a severe blow to investor and business confidence. The adverse publicity globally has spread like wild fire. Unfortunately Sri Lanka also got bad press as the Fortune magazine’s South East Asian Correspondent was in Colombo when the third air raid and indiscriminate firing by troops on the ground took place resulting in an article titled “ The flying tigers of Tamil Eelam buzz Sri Lanka” getting wide publicity.
The move, be it temporary or a longer phenomenon, has also dealt a severe blow to Colombo’s efforts to position itself as an attractive air hub in South Asia. The move will also make Colombo the first airport if not among a handful to be closed at night on security reasons. Some international airports don’t operate at night to ensure its citizens are spared of noise pollution.
A CEO of a top conglomerate however noted that the closure was the best move provided it was temporary. “It is better to be safe than sorry and the closure is a wise move given the current realities,” he said. It was pointed out that since defence authorities are currently unable to manage the LTTE air threat confidently and securely, implications of a passenger aircraft being mistakenly hit by air defence fire from the ground could be disastrous with long term consequences.
“At present security must take precedence but we hope the defence authorities would get their act together sooner than later and come up with a successful mechanism to counter the serious air threat from the LTTE. In that context we expect the closure of the airport at night would be temporary. A permanent arrangement however would seriously impact the country and the economy at large,” the CEO emphasized.
It is learnt that the Government is busy to secure a Three Dimensional (3D) radar system that could track the altitude of an enemy aircraft as opposed to the 2D equipment, which reportedly need to be rebooted after every eight hours. More sophisticated fighter jets for the Air Force are also on the cards.
This CEO however dismissed the BIA closure derailing the country’s efforts to position itself as an air hub. “We haven’t tapped that potential for a long time and I don’t think the closure has a major impact. There are several other long standing issues that need to be addressed if the country is serious about becoming a true air hub for the South Asian region,” he added. It was also pointed out that more Indians were using Colombo as a hub to connect to rest of the world largely due to pricing and lack of air services, two factors which would soon disappear in tandem with the rapid boom in aviation industry in India.
An international transport expert who is also attached to a different conglomerate said the closure of the airport was purely reactive rather than making a proactive stance to deal with the LTTE air threat. “What we are telling the world is that Sri Lanka doesn’t have the right infrastructure and the defence expertise to counter an air attack by a terrorist group,” he added. This move certainly will have a spill over effect on other sectors such as shipping, insurance and the country’s overall risk profile and rating.
It was also pointed out that the closure, even though temporary, will be a setback to past and future efforts to position Sri Lanka as a sea and air hub in South Asia and the Middle East. “Even with certain inherent weaknesses we have been positioning Colombo as a 24-hour-open-gateway to the rest of the world. From May 10 we will be telling a different story to the world,” he added.
Aviation industry experts said that the closure of the airport was amateurish and it was far from a professional and confident approach to the LTTE air threat. He said that the closure only helps LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran’s cause rather than negating it. “With the mere use of a few single-engine aircraft and targeting some select installations the LTTE has demonstrated it could virtually shut down Sri Lanka’s only international airport. The closure of airport is perhaps is what LTTE expected eventually,” he opined adding that the amateurish ways of responding to the threat does not speak well of the country’s defence capabilities.
It was also pointed out that the chaos on April 29 morning could have been avoided had the defence authorities didn’t issue directions to armed personnel to fire indiscriminately. It was claimed that some soldiers even used their AK 47s to fire to the air at random.
This expert questioned the timing of the closure as well. “What assurances the authorities have that the LTTE won’t mount an air raid just before 10.30 pm and just after 4.30 am,” he queried.
Many private sector experts agree (who also say many other professionals and civil society would confide) the three air raids by the LTTE were as the world famous Fortune magazine reported, yet another embarrassment to (President Mahinda) Rajapakse’s dysfunctional government, which is just the latest in a long list of poor administrations.
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