(Petaling Jaya, Wednesday): On Monday morning, I had said that as a patriotic Malaysian, I hoped that the new Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) which started commercial operations that day (6th July 1998) would be a terrible chaos and mess on its first day of operation like the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) on June 30 so that Malaysians can hold their heads high and tell the world that such chaos and mess is the order of things for the first day of operations of all international airports!
If the HKIA had operated smoothly on its first day of operations, Malaysians would have to hang their heads in shame.
During the first hours of the operation of HKIA, there were positive reports about its smooth operations with CNN giving the headline "Hong Kong has smooth takeoff for futuristic new airport - No problems reported" for its report which said: "Compared to the rocky start of another new Asian airport in Kuala Lumpur, the seemingly smooth move was a morale booster for Hong Kong."
Fortunately for KLIA, the HKIA ran into problems after the first few hours of smooth operation.
As reported by the Hong Kong newspapers, some of the problems which hit the HKIA are very reminiscent of the KLIA's problems. At the HKIA, some passengers had to wait nearly five hours for their baggage while others were delayed for up to two hours inside planes before they could disembark.
The Hong Kong press reported that 10,000 baggages missed their flights on Monday, although the baggage problem appeared to be solved yesterday. There were numerous other complaints, ranging from out-of-order escalators to no air-conditioning
One flight had to be delayed for a day and another held overnight in Taipei because late take-offs meant the destination airport would be closed when they arrived.
The problems that multiplied throughout the first day of the operation of the HKIA included:
While Malaysians can feel relieved that the KLIA is not alone and now has the company of HKIA in running into a chaotic and messy situation on the first days of its operation, we cannot feel complacent and proud that we are in good company. In fact, there should have been greater preparations and readiness before the start of the commercial operations of KLIA so that the KLIA, dubbed as the airport for the next century, could have outshone HKIA being as trouble-free as possible during the first days of operations.
KLIA missed the opportunity to be seen to be more efficient and technologically advanced than even HKIA - especially as KLIA boasts of the sophisticated and state-of-the-art Total Airport Management System (TAMS) which even HKIA does not have.
The Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Ling Liong Sik said that the first-day glitches at the HKIA at Chek Lap Kok showed that these were normal occurrences when opening a new airport and that an airport needed time to ensure its systems functioned at an intended level of efficiency.
It is not known whether it is the kLIA or HKIA which had suffered a greater chaos and mess on the their respective first day of operations, but it would be most unfortunate if Liong Sik should jump on the HKIA problems as a justification for the KLIA troubles, as this seems to be an argument that there is nothing wrong being incompetent or inefficient as others are also incompetent and inefficient.
One thing Malaysians can learn from Hong Kong on the first-day problems of the international airport is that the Hong Kong press have been able to report them with greater detail and depth, without being accused of "negative reporting" or having ill-intention against the authorities.
Even now, although the KLIA is in the ninth day of operation, the authorities concerned have not released full and official information about the various systems that went wrong on 30th June, whether with regard to the number of flights (and passengers) which were delayed or cancelled, the number of baggages which missed their flights or were misloaded, the malfunctioning of aerobridges, flight information display systems, etc.
A full public accounting and discussion of the various failures and lapses in the first few days of the KLIA is not to indulge in witch-hunting or finger-pointing but to give meaning to the culture of responsibility and to take the public into confidence to ensure that there would be no recurrence of such airport fiascos.
For this reason, I have given notice to the Speaker of Dewan Rakyat, Tan Sri Mohamad Zahir that I will be moving a motion of urgent definite public importance in Parliament on Monday (July 13) on the first-day chaos and mess of the KLIA when it was not yet ready, resulting in unprecedented chaos and mess, and the urgent need to restore the confidence of the travelling public in the KLIA.
The Transort Ministry's Parliamentary Secretary, Datuk Chor Chee Heung, has come to the defence of his Minister, asking me to make constructive proposals concerning KLIA instead of issuing negative press statements. If both Liong Sik and Chor Chee Heung had carefully studied my press statements, they would have found that I had made criticisms which are meant to be constructive proposals for the improvement of KLIA.
In fact, on the very second day of operations of KLIA on 1st July, I tried to contact the Chairman of the Kuala Lumpur Intenrational Airport Bhd. Tan Sri Clifford Herbert to ask for a full briefing on the KLIA breakdowns, the Total Airport Management System (TAMS) and to inform him of the various areas in the KLIA which needed urgent rectification.
Clifford was kind enough to return my call but he informed me that the running of the KLIA had been handed over to the Malaysia Airports Bhd, but when my office tried to contact the MAB chairman, Tan Sri Basir Ismail, there had been no return call from him for six days until yesterday. I have since then contacted Tan Sri Basir Ismail, and he assured me that "everything is all right" and that there is no possibility of any recurrence. I hope Tan Sri Basir is right.