By Jerry Francis
I thought that after the fiasco involving Asialink Cargo Express – an airline cargo operation that failed to take off from the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport in 2010, the Transport Ministry and the Department of Civil Aviation would have learned from it. I was wrong as the officials appeared to have short memories.
The introduction of the direct cargo flight to Singapore was to have taken off on June 16, 2010, but was directed at the last minute to postpone indefinitely and has since been called off. What a pity, had the airline been allowed to operate it would provide the much needed air cargo facilities to the manufacturers in Perak.
Similarly the locally formed airline, Flying Fox, was scheduled to take off on its maiden flight to Medan from the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport last December 13, but was called off 48 hours before the inaugural flight.
The reason for the postponement according to a spokesman from the Ministry of Transport was that the runway was being upgraded and the flight had been postponed for safety reasons. It was also claimed that sinkholes had occurred in the vicinity of the airport.
To my knowledge only two sinkholes had occurred. One at the outside parking space in 2009, and the other along the “Echo” taxiway in 2011. Both are believed to have been caused by pre-war underground trenches.
There may be no reason to doubt the Ministry of Transport’s statement. However, the question being asked was why in both cases the directive to postpone came at the final stages of preparations?
After so much time and effort were put to obtain the approvals, both airlines failed to take off from the airport. No wonder the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport has remained under-utilised and became the most talked about airport in the country. The decisions also dashed the high hopes given to investors and probably even killed their enthusiasm to bring investments to the state.
I sympathise with both Asialink Cargo Express and Flying Fox. In the case of Flying Fox, it had incurred great losses in its promotion drive and refund of tickets sold. Even some VIPs appeared to have been taken for ‘a ride’ when Flying Fox confidently launched its Ipoh-Medan flight with great fanfare.
All this could have been avoided if the negotiators were fully aware of the regulations governing air cargo and the situation at the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport.
Were not all the details of Flying Fox proposals – including their objectives and type of aircraft to be used, tabled at the negotiations? If so, why did problems, such as those given by the relevant authorities only arise after approval was given?
Certainly the relevant authorities must have known that the runway could not accommodate larger aircraft such as the Boeing 737-400 despite a recent extension.
Although an additional 200m had been added to the 1800-metre runway, the situation has not changed. The extension cannot be utilised as the “LAPI” (aircraft approaching lights) had not been relocated on both ends of the runway. On the other hand, if they are relocated, aircraft approaching the airport would be flying just above the roofs of some of the houses.
Don’t the relevant authorities realise that an airport can only be fully utilised if its runway is capable of handling all types of aircraft safely, and is not just a cosmetically beautiful terminal? If the recent RM42 million upgrading of the airport cannot improve the situation, then why do we keep on spending more taxpayers’ money on the airport?
At its height in 2003, the airport handled about 116,000 passengers and 500 metric tonnes of cargo with 1572 aircraft movements. And Boeing 737s had been landing and taking off regularly. Since 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 movement of passengers and handling of air cargo had dropped drastically.
As it would be very costly to raise the status of the airport, we need to seriously look into whether there is a need for an international airport in Perak or be just contented with a feeder airport.
A final decision on this is therefore very much desired so that there will be no more mistakes made or more money spent unnecessarily. The issue must not be prolonged as it will affect investments in the city, and Perak as a whole.