The future of the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport in Ipoh still remains uncertain with proposals swinging back and forth for the last three decades.
There have been talks of relocating the airport, which then swung to calls for improvement, and it was even mooted as a feeder airport for the region. It appears to be the most talked about airport in the country.
Last month, the Menteri Besar of Perak Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir reassured Perakeans that Sultan Azlan Shah Airport will not be relocated, but there is a plan for the possibility of setting up another international airport elsewhere in the state. He added the state government felt that the current location of the airport is very strategic and can act as a catalyst for the city’s economy. Therefore, the state government is of the opinion that the upgrading of the airport should be continued to enable small-sized aircraft to land.
I hope his reassurance will put to rest further talks of relocating the airport as there have been a lot of conflicting views. But, I have my doubts that the state can facilitate two airports. Why the need for an international airport, when there is one in Penang in the north, and KLIA and Subang in the south, a short flying time away? Why not develop Sultan Azlan Shah Airport into a feeder airport for low-cost carriers to link with other South-East Asian countries?
Ever since the late 70s, there have been talks of relocating the airport to Bota in Perak Tengah District where the land is flat. It was considered to be ideal as the proposed location is midway between Ipoh and the tourist resort of Lumut-Pangkor.
Sultan Azlan Shah Airport is considered unsuitable for expansion due to the surrounding limestone hills and as well as being a stumbling block to development of high-rise buildings in the city. However, the airport was later improved to accommodate medium range jetliners covering domestic and international destinations in Indonesia and Singapore, and added various facilities, including an instrumental landing system.
At its height in 2003, the airport handled about 116,000 passengers and 500 metric tonnes of cargo with 1,572 aircraft movements. It started to slide in 2005 when the North-South Expressway was completed and travelling times by road to the Penang and Kuala Lumpur were sliced. Malaysian Airline System (MAS) stopped flying into Ipoh, followed by Air Asia which terminated its Senai-Ipoh route citing the airport’s runway as unsuitable. The airport was practically closed as a passenger terminal, except for chartered flights and light aircraft maintenance services.
Then just before the general election in 2008, very convincing news emerged, probably politically motivated, that the world’s first international humanitarian airport (a transit hub for global relief operations) was to be constructed near Bandar Seri Iskandar also in Perak Tengah District, which could be used as commercial airport. Soon after the general election, not a single word of the airport was uttered. All the planning and approvals appeared to be non-existent although it was claimed to have the approval of the Civil Aviation Department.
After failing in its bid to have a Low-Cost Carriers’ Terminal (LCCT) located in Batang Padang early last year, the then Pakatan Rakyat State Government turned to the Transport Ministry to honour its promise to improve and develop the under-utilised airport, or alternatively hand it over to the state government. But before any decision could be reached, the opposition state government fell and the Barisan Nasional took over. A RM60 million allocation to upgrade the runway was then approved.
Since then, there have been other talks to turn it into a feeder airport and as well as an air-cargo terminal. Hardly two weeks after the announcement in June of a direct Ipoh-Singapore all-cargo flight, it was postponed “indefinitely” and is unlikely to materialise.
Now even the much publicized decision to upgrade the airport is also in doubt. The Housing and Local Government Minister Datuk Seri Ong Ka Chuan was recently quoted as saying that “Even if you extend the runway, there’s no point. It can only qualify as a domestic airport. We have to find a new airport, that has always been on my mind.”
And just last month, an MCA special committee set up to gather feedback on the proposed Ipoh Draft Local Plan 2020, had also recommended that the airport be relocated. The committee’s chairman Datuk Yik Phooi Hong said that the airport should be moved to Seri Iskandar, which had been earmarked as a possible site for a new airport.
Offering a different opinion, the Perak Chinese of Commerce and Industry (PCCCI) president Datuk Lim Kok Cheong said the airport should be upgraded and offer flights to Asean destinations, such as Bangkok, Hanoi, Jakarta, Macau, Hong Kong and Guangzhou in Southern China. “It is within four hours of travelling time, which could enhance foreign investment and tourism,” he said in his speech at the PCCCI’s anniversary dinner recently. “At the moment, we are unhappy that plans to upgrade the airport have yet to take off.”
A final decision on the future of the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport is therefore very much desired. The issue must not be prolonged as it will affect investments in the city, and Perak as a whole.