Sri Lanka flag-carrier ditches ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa's 'vanity' airport

COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's national airline on Saturday announced it will stop all flights to the country's second international airport built and named after Mahinda Rajapaksa, after he was defeated in last week's presidential elections.

Sri Lankan Airlines said operating flights via the Rajapaksa International airport in the former president's home constituency of Hambantota was a huge drain on the already heavily debt-laden carrier.

The state-owned airline - under new management after new President Maithripala Sirisena assumed office last week - has decided to cut back uneconomical flights, including operations via Rajapaksa International.

"This translates to an annual bottom line improvement of approximately US$18 million (S$22.5 million)," the airline said in a statement.

The airline is weighed down with debts of nearly US$650 million.

Rajapaksa opened his pet-project airport in March 2013, hoping it would become a new economic hub and act as a gateway to the island's southeast.

But the former government said in parliament that the airport earned 16,000 rupees (S$161.48) in the month of May last year, recording a turnover less than that of a corner grocery store.

The only foreign airlines which operate services through the airport are UAE-based Fly Dubai and Rotana Jet Aviation.

Two budget carriers pulled out of the airport last year saying it was uneconomical due to insufficient traffic, but Sri Lankan Airlines maintained flights for political reasons, according to official sources.

Local media dismissed the airport as a vanity project for Rajapaksa who had also named a sea port, a performing arts centre and a conventions centre after himself.

Built with funding from China's Export-Import Bank, the new US$206 million facility could accommodate the Airbus A380, the biggest airliner in service. Attempts to attract an aircraft maintenance facility there had drawn a blank.

Last week's election was fought partly on allegations of corruption and waste by the Rajapaksa administration, which is facing allegations of padding infrastructure projects to syphon off money.

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