The Report Company: 2011 was an exciting year for AASL. As well as achieving an outstanding business performance, the company also won silver at the National Chamber of Commerce’s National Business Excellence Awards. Looking back on the year, what would you highlight, and what were the strategies behind your success?

Prasanna Wickramasuriya: 2011 was a very successful year, not only for us but for all Sri Lanka’s industrial sectors. When President Rajapaksa took office in 2010 he launched Mahinda Chintana (Mahinda Vision), in which he clearly spelt out five different economic drivers for the country. A large emphasis was placed on aviation, with a view to Sri Lanka becoming an aviation hub. We have a ten year plan to achieve this, and we kick-started this initiative very strongly in 2010.

We are concentrating on many areas: we will enhance the existing passenger capacity, enhance the facilities for transit passengers, and enhance the cargo volumes and air cargo handling.

We currently have only one international airport, but we will add another by the end of 2012.

In addition, our national carrier, Sri Lankan airlines, has expanded its network to serve new destinations and passengers will be able to fly via Sri Lanka either through the existing Colombo airport or through the new Hambantota airport.

Our passenger capacity at Bandaranaike Colombo international airport (BIA) is 6 million passengers per annum. We recorded 6.4 million passengers in 2011, so are almost saturated. Therefore, we are making plans to double the airport’s capacity by the end of 2015. In addition, the new international airport at Hambantota, which will be ready at the end of 2012, will initially add a further 1 million passengers. By 2017 we will add another 4 million passenger capacity to this new airport.

TRC: Hambantota airport is being implemented as an eco-friendly project. Can you tell us some more about that?

PW: Initially the plan was to build the airport at Weerawila, but we scrapped these plans due to environmental concerns. The site was then moved to Mattala, just 15 kilometres north of Hambantota, which is an area away from paddy fields to minimise disruption to our farmers. We have carried out an environment impact assessment, and will be looking into carbon credits schemes. We want to market this airport as being completely environmentally friendly so people will want to fly there. We are going to have a wildlife sanctuary nearby so passengers who are transiting through the airport can come and feed baby elephants. We are wildlife lovers and we want to promote our wildlife and we certainly don’t want to do anything to upset that balance.

TRC: Sri Lanka has very ambitious plans for developing its air infrastructure. What role do foreign investors play?

PW: In the passenger capacity enhancement project at BIA we are working with foreign funding for the second phase of expansion. Hambantota airport is being constructed through a loan from China Exim bank. The total project cost is $209m (GBP131m). Phase one is 800 hectares, while in phase two we will add a further 1200 hectares. So far 60% of the work has been completed, and in parallel we have already made calls for proposals for other light industries to come in around the airport. This includes maintenance, repair, aircraft painting and flying academies. In addition, we are inviting other light industries such as computer assembly plants as well as leisure industries. We are getting a lot of interest from foreign investors, and we want foreign investors to come in and get involved. It will be a true win-win situation.

TRC: Part of the president’s vision is to spread economic development throughout the whole country. What role does the aviation sector play in realising this vision?

PW: 50% of the country’s GDP is generated in and around the western province, and the president wants to take this into other areas in the country. A lot of big projects are now going on all over the country to spearhead this development. Our airport project in Hambantota borders neighbouring districts so the benefits will reach the entire country. We forecast the creation of 1,200 direct employment opportunities and more than 6,000 indirect job opportunities through this new airport alone. The airport cannot function in isolation, it’s going to be an airport city and benefit of that will ultimately go into the neighbouring districts. Likewise, there’ll be a lot of development around the airport because passengers fly not only to airports but also to destinations.

From Hambantota, you can go and see leopards in about 20 minutes, in 30 minutes you can reach a beach, and we are also going to link the airport with a highway to Arugam Bay. You can reach Nuwara Eliya, with its tea plantations and cool weather within about 3 hours, so Hambantota is a very central place and for tourists it’s ideal for them to fly into.

TRC: What makes Sri Lanka stand out as a hub? What are its competitive advantages?

PW: The connectivity. We are geographically located in an ideal spot, especially for launching into the African continent. This is ideal for airlines, but also for air cargo and courier companies such as FedEx, UPS and TNT. Our labour force is also very much better than other competing countries. We provide a shorter route which is good for companies looking to save on costs.

In addition to our geographical location, we not only have fabulous beaches but we also have heritage sites and differing climates, so it’s fully worth anyone’s money to come to Sri Lanka.

TRC: What would you like people to understand about Sri Lanka?

PW: Unfortunately, for 30-odd years we had this conflict situation. Sri Lankans are peace loving people, and now that environment is finally there. We can now travel freely and put up businesses wherever we want. Democracy is prevailing everywhere. That friendly atmosphere is there, and Sri Lankans are very hospitable people who don’t have any differences.

We are Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers. All of us are Sri Lankans. We want people to come and visit our country and witness the friendly atmosphere and the diversity of cultural sites

I think with time the negative perceptions about our country will fade. We all have a big role to play there, not to exaggerate things but to tell the true story of what is happening. We just ask that people come here, visit the country themselves and realise how things really are here. I think that’s fair. If you visit Sri Lanka once, Sri Lanka will always remain close to your heart.