(Petaling Jaya, Tuesday): The first bank robbery at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) on Sunday night is the latest in a long string of adverse publicity for the RM10 billion "airport for the future" - from its chaotic opening in July 1998, followed by the rat menace, million-ringgit airport pilferages and thefts while all this while, irking air-travellers by its distance, transport inconvenience and high expenses for passengers having to use KLIA.
The KLIA, an important component of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), was meant to be an international aviation hub of the 21st century and further proof that Malaysia is "heading towards a new era to create a new wave of opportunities, not only for the country, but for the region as well".
After more than two years of operation, the passenger-unfriendly KLIA stands as a warning of how the high-tech ambition of the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad as symbolised by the MSC, could flop as disastrously as the "airport of the future".
Instead of becoming an important international aviation hub of the 21st century, KLIA is now in danger of becoming the world’s most expensive "spoke" airport.
This warning was contained in a recent Asiaweek article, which wrote:
"Hubs will be airports where all the major regional and global airlines fly to and from, while local and regional airlines take passengers to nearby spokes.
"Singapore and Hong Kong have already carved their niches as Asia's premier hubs. Bangkok is actually bigger than Singapore and carried 28 million passengers over the past 12 months compared to Singapore's 27 million and Hong Kong's 30 million. KLIA, which is 63rd biggest airport in the world and 11th biggest in Asia carried just 15 million passengers during the past 12 months."
The report said foreign tour operators had complained of difficulties in coming here because there were no direct flights and inadequate number of seats on them.
The report said:
"For the 27 foreign airlines that do, weekly flights to Kuala Lumpur only number 155 times while Singapore has 448 and Thailand 436."
In 1998, the number of flights to Kuala Lumpur was 884 and the capacity was 207,256 seats. In contrast, Singapore has 1,405 flights with seat capacity of 359,314 and Thailand 1,149 and 311,703 respectively.
The position for KLIA for 1999 and 2000 has worsened further. Only two weeks ago, British Airways (BA) announced that it would suspend its flights to Kuala Lumpur from April 1 next year as it was incurring losses in this sector.
The person in the country who should be the most concerned and worried about the failure of KLIA to become an international aviation hub should be the Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Ling Liong Sik. However, he seemed to be blissfully indifferent and unconcerned about the KLIA’s failures, which have far-reaching consequences to the economic and financial well-being of the country.
Liong Sik was guilty of Ministerial irresponsibility of the first magnitude when he evinced a "no loss" response to the report about British Airways’ intended pull-out from KLIA, saying that the departure of the British Airways offered other international airlines the opportunity to fill their planes with passengers.
In actual fact, British Airways would not be the only airline to terminate its air services to and from KLIA - as Australia's Qantas and Ansett Airlines and Germany's Lufthansa had pulled out of Kuala Lumpur in the past two years.
Asiaweek said that with other major global airlines like United, American, Swissair, Air France, and SAS avoiding flying to Malaysia, "KLIA is nown reduced to receiving a handful of Asian airlines, as well as some second-tier international carriers".
The Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister, Datuk Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir had shown a greater sense of responsibility than Liong Sik when he said that BA’s plan was not good news for Malaysia’s tourism industry and that he would try to persuade British Airways not to suspend its flights to Kuala Lumpur.
Liong Sik does not seem to realise that KLIA’s failure to become an international aviation hub would seriously undermine Malaysia’s tourist industry and damage Malaysia’s economic resilience, as the Seventh Malaysia Plan had targetted tourist arrivals in Malaysia to reach 12.5 million for this year. The number of tourist arrivals for the first six months of this year is 4 million, and even if Malaysia registers 8 million tourist arrivals for the whole of this year (which would be an all-time high) this would still be a hefty 36 per cent shortfall from the Seventh Malaysia Plan target.
In February 1998, Liong Sik said that the KLIA was "built to handle up to 25 million passengers in its first year of operations followed by 50, 75 and ultimately 100 million a year". (Sunday.Star 22.2.98)
According to the Malaysia Airports executive director Rosman Abdullah, the KLIA was operating at a level catering for 25 million passengers even though the actual number was 13.2 million in 1999. (Star 26.4.00).
With such a passenger load, the Subang airport could still have coped with the air traffic without having to spend RM10 billion to build an "airport for the future", as the Seventh Malaysia Plan stated that the Kuala Lumpur International Airport at Subang had a capacity of handling a maximum of 16 million passengers per annum (mppa). As it is, it will be at least ten years before the KLIA would be handling 25 million passengers a year, and I do not know whether Liong Sik could tell when it would be catering for 50, 70 and ultimately 100 million passengers a year!
Malaysia needs a fierce "soul-searching" as to how to turn the KLIA from a white elephant and the most expensive "spoke" airport in the world into an international hub for airlines, but the essential first step before any such soul-searching can bear fruit is to have a new Transport Minister after 14 years who does not suffer from ministerial fatigue as not to realise that KLIA has become an albatross and warning that the MSC could also flop as disastrously as the "airport of the future".