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Ipoh – A Feeder Airport for the Region

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Thinking Aloud

By Jerry Francis

The need for a good viable commercial airport in Ipoh has been felt ever since Air Asia abandoned the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport in 2006, citing unsuitable runway as the reason.

Now that plans for a RM60 million extension of the runway have been approved by the Federal Government, there are talks to turn the airport into a feeder airport in the region.

Being a big state, Perak needs a strategically located functional airport to boost economic development. This is generally the view of the people, particularly those in the business and manufacturing industry, who have made various appeals to the state government for the revival of the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport.

The question is when can the much publicised extension of the runway, which has been an off-and-on topic for years, be carried out?

Runway Extension A Priority Project

Even the Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir could not firmly state when the construction would begin.

“I’ve spoken to Transport Minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat to speed up the work on the extension of the runway at the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport. I do not know when work will start but it is a priority project for the State”, he was quoted at the recent launching of Silver Fly, a budget airline, at the airport.

“We have to re-define our strategy… not competing, but as a feeder airport to link to other airports in the country and region to attract visitors and investors”, he added.

The state government also signed a five-year collaboration agreement with Firefly, which now flies daily between Ipoh and Singapore.

Zambry said Firefly’s cooperation with the state was in line with the vision to make the Sultan Azlan Shah Airport a feeder airport.

However, can it materialise? Having seen a number of projects fail to take off in Perak, we cannot blame anyone for expressing doubt.

Humanitarian Airport

And let’s not forget that just before the General Election in 2008, there had been much publicity on the proposal to establish a first airport in the world to be dedicated to humanitarian efforts, at Bandar Seri Iskandar in Perak Tengah District.

The airport, about 50 km west of Ipoh, would provide emergency medical care for the Asia-Pacific region – described as one of the most disaster prone areas on the planet, with earthquakes, volcanic explosions, tsunami and floods occurring regularly.

Perak Government was to allocate 800ha of land for the transit hub of the global relief operations. It will include at 500-bed hospital and a 3,760-metre-long runway to accommodate aircraft, such as Boeing 747, and other related facilities.

Apart from accommodating rescue aircraft and helicopters for deployment to disaster areas, the airport will also host commercial airlines’ facilities – thereby becoming an alternative international air terminal in Perak. The cost, estimated at RM1 billion, is to be provided through a foreign humanitarian fund.

A memorandum of understanding was said to have been signed with the State Development Corporation and that the Civil Aviation Department had approved it. Just as fast as a flash flood emerges and subsides, the news about the proposed airport too suddenly fizzled out. What surprises me is how so much was said to have been done and achieved since 2006 and yet, a curtain could suddenly be drawn over the project.

Peak in 2003

Sultan Azlan Shah Airport, at its peak in 2003, handled about 116,000 passengers and 500 metric tonnes of cargo with 1,572 aircraft movements. It was then interlinked with major towns in the country, including Kuala Lumpur and Penang. International flights from Singapore and Sumatra also arrived on a frequent basis. As such the airport was fully supported by various facilities, including customs and immigration. 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. The Malaysian Airline System (MAS) began to reduce the number of its daily flights schedule and eventually it stopped. The final blow was when Air Asia too terminated its Senai-Ipoh route.

Other Activities Pick Up

The airport’s statistics began to gradually decline and by 2007 only 814 passengers went through the airport and 10 metric tonnes of cargo were handled. Fortunately, other activities at the airport began to pick up. Its role began to switch from being a passengers’ airport to a hub for light aircraft. There was an increase of aviation activities at the airport. There are currently a flying academy, a police air wing’s base and aircraft maintenance facilities at the hangars. As a result, the number of aircraft movements took a sharp climb to 32,462 in 2008 from just 954 in 2006.

State Involvement Needed

However, having a viable commercial airport alone is insufficient to attract investors and tourists to the state. There must be good investment environment and good tourist attractions. Otherwise, such an airport will only serve outgoing tourists from the state and not the other way round. Who would want to come to the state if there are no ideal investment opportunities or renowned tourist attractions? Therefore, the state needs to improve and develop business and tourism aspects, commensurate with the development of the airport so that it would not merely facilitate transportation but be an avenue for economic development.