An Alliance Air flight from Chennai landed at the Jaffna International Airport on Thursday as Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena inaugurated the country's third international airport, upgraded with India's assistance, in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province.
The inaugural flight from Chennai was the first to land at the new international airport in Jaffna. The ATR 72-600 aircraft was accorded water salute as it landed at the Jaffna airport, about 400-km from capital Colombo.
The Jaffna International Airport was earlier known as Palaly airport which was used as a military air base and for domestic flights.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe formally unveiled a plaque commemorating the inauguration of the airport. Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Taranjit Singh Sandhu was also present.
The occasion also marked the maiden ATR-72 aircraft of Alliance Air making its first overseas trip with a delegation from India led by Air India CMD Ashwani Lohani, Alliance Air CEO C S Subbiah and a group of Indian journalists on board.
Alliance Air, the wholly owned subsidiary of Air India, would soon commence its maiden overseas flight to Jaffna, aimed at boosting the ties between India and Sri Lanka.
The airline currently serves 54 destinations across India and first overseas operation between Chennai-Jaffna touched down at the newly laid runway.
Speaking on the occasion, Sandhu said that with the inauguration of the Jaffna airport the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka have now truly touched the sky.
Sandhu said that the inaugural flight was yet another example of India's commitment to continue with people-oriented development projects in Sri Lanka.
He recalled the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to Lanka in 2015, in which he said: "The future I dream for India is also a future that I want for our neighbours".
"Air Alliance will operate short haul flights between Chennai and Jaffna," an official statement said.
According to the Lankan authorities, the air service between Chennai-Jaffna was launched on Thursday after a gap of 41 years. The flight operations were suspended during the decades old civil war in Lanka.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe extended his gratitude to the Indian government, Prime Minister Modi and the Ministry of External Affairs.
"Let me put on record the appreciation we have for the Prime Minister (Modi) and the Government of India for their help. I wish all success to the Jaffna International airport," he said.
Lohani told the Indian journalists on board that Alliance Air initially planned to operate thrice a week on the Chennai-Jaffna-Chennai route.
"We are planning to commence operations very soon. It will be thrice a week. Later, we will increase to seven flights a week," he said.
Sri Lankan Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation Arjuna Ranatunga said the plan was to commence the airline service between Chennai and Jaffna from November 1.
"We are planning to start from November 1. But keeping the Deepavali festival in mind we are planning to operate from October 27 since Deepavali falls on that day," the former Sri Lankan cricket captain said.
The fare for the Chennai-Jaffna route is priced at around Rs 4,000, Alliance Air officials said.
As part of the redevelopment of the airport, the first 950 meters of the runway was repaved to accommodate C100 Bombardier planes with a seating capacity of 72.
"Under the second stage the existing runway will be further extended. Under the third stage of expansion the runway is to be expanded to 2.3 kms in order to handle large passenger aircraft such as Airbus A320 and A321," officials said.
The airport would add to the socio-economic welfare of the Tamil dominated Northern province, whose capital Jaffna was the base from where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ran their military campaign for a separate Tamil homeland for nearly 30 years before its collapse in 2009 after the Sri Lankan Army killed its supreme leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
On expansion plans, Alliance Air CEO C S Subbiah said they would also look at operating flight service to Batticola from Jaffna.
"That is also on the cards. We also want to operate flights from Madurai and Tiruchirapalli from Tamil Nadu to Jaffna. It will happen in coming months," he said.