By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
Associating Ipoh with pomelos, taugeh and cheap hawker food comes easy, as these products are readily available for visitors and travellers alike. That is, however, the positive side but we have a negative side too, one which has been nagging us for a while now. It is our over-publicised but under-utilised airport. The city’s one time pride and joy is today a pale shadow of what it was in the 1960s right to the 1990s. Blame it on the North-South Expressway for redefining land travel.
Sultan Azlan Shah Airport has undergone several structural and cosmetic changes involving its façade and its image. The latest being the extension of its runway from 1.8 km to 2 km. Although claims of impropriety have surfaced regarding the exact length of the runway, it did not stop airlines from using the airport.
Among the more notable one was AirAsia. The hype surrounding its introductory Ipoh-Johor Bahru flight was one of a kind. The whole city came to a standstill when Tony Fernandes came to town with his team in February 2006. Lesser known airlines came along, some lasting a few months, some weeks and some with hardly anything to show, save for their banners and buntings adorning the airport walls. They came with a bang but left with a whimper. That was the sad truth. Today, the only company that uses the terminal is Firefly, a subsidiary of our flag carrier MAS, operating the lucrative Ipoh-Singapore-Ipoh route daily.
Countless representations were made to the authorities, including the highest office of the state but to no avail. Most Ipohites, including this scribe, have lost hope of ever seeing the city’s airport being transformed into a regional transport hub of standing like Penang’s Bayan Lepas Airport or Alor Star’s Sultan Abdul Halim Airport.
But things are about to change now that a local company has decided to take the plunge. Flying Fox Airways, a joint venture between Ipoh-based Mega Dynasty Sdn Bhd and Indonesia’s third largest carrier, Sriwijaya Air will fly the Ipoh-Medan route beginning November 8. The twice weekly flights will increase in frequency once economies of scale and a credible critical mass are achieved.
Notwithstanding glitches dogging previous attempts at reviving the Ipoh-Medan route, the seriousness shown by the parties involved during the airways’ launching on Friday, October 11 at Impiana Hotel, Ipoh was laudable.
The biggest handicap faced by enterprising individuals and companies in the past was aircraft. Cost is prohibitive and not having a sizeable passenger load to offset operational costs put paid to their lofty dreams. One cannot operate with leased planes, as the price of keeping the planes in flight is impossible with a poor passenger load and hefty overheads.
Will Flying Fox Airways succeed where others failed? This is a million-ringgit question best answered by the operators themselves.
So, what have we to offer people from Medan?
Health tourism is a major consideration as Medanese, due to substandard medical service in their backyard, have turned to the private hospitals of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang to seek affordable treatment for their ailments.
Ipoh’s five private hospitals should optimise this opportunity to the fullest. They should take a leaf from Penang’s Adventist Hospital. The services provided by this Pulau Tikus facility extend beyond healthcare. They include meeting their clients at the airport, making hotel reservations, taking care of family members (sightseeing and shopping), transportation and others. It is a very competitive business and those who walk the extra mile get the customers. It is all about marketing one’s services, not hard selling that many here prefer to do.
Ipoh’s hawker food is a hit with foreigners and Medanese are no exception. Indigenous food (Minang, Sunda, Betawi, Batak, Padang, etc.) in Medan is very good but Chinese cuisine is not. Indian is almost non-existent. Western-type outlets in Medan are better than Ipoh. A food fest, held on a quarterly or half-yearly basis, will be a good start to promote Ipoh’s gastronomical delights.
Education is another major consideration. Ipoh’s three international schools have ample space for children from Northern Sumatra. With the availability of direct flights to Ipoh, Indonesian parents will be tempted to send their children over. Our rates are a lot cheaper than either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, and this is a fact.
Since the rich Chinese community in Medan is our primary target, winning them over becomes a priority. We should get enough Hokkien-speaking minders to take care of these visitors. A 4-star hotel in Pulau Tikus, Penang employs Hokkien-speaking staff to cater for this specific need, and it is reaping results.
Efforts at promoting Ipoh will go to waste if stakeholders remain overly cautious. The state government has done its part. The inception of Flying Fox Airways is a case in point. So it is up to those in the private sector to up the ante. It will be a sin to allow another golden opportunity slip by unnoticed.