We really need to improve – by leesan

KLIA, once the pride and joy of Malaysia, has been inundated with problems in the past few years. This year, it ranked 67 in the top 100 Best Airports list.

THERE are more than 41,700 civilian airports across the globe, majority of them in countries with vast expanse of land, for example, the United States. Our very own Kuala Lumpur International Airport is also a civilian airport, but one that has become a bone of contention for many people.

Completed in 1998, KLIA is now in its 25th year of operation.

It was designed by Kisho Kurokawa, the legendary Japanese architect who also designed the world’s first floating airport, the Kansai Airport in Japan. Kurokawa collaborated with Malaysian architects to design and build the KLIA, with construction undertaken by Japan’s Taisei Corporation.

According to reports, the airport was designed with the concept of maximising natural lighting, having abundant greenery, and using energy-saving solutions, giving utmost user comfort and practicality.

Most importantly, the main building of KLIA also incorporates elements of local aesthetics.

How long more do international travellers at KLIA have to take the shuttle bus? — Photos: Leesan

Whenever I arrive at the departure terminal hall, I always like to see the high ceilings, which gives the impression that the place is really spacious.

During the construction of the airport, I got the chance to attend a special briefing held in conjunction with the visit of a delegation of Japanese mayors to the construction site. Back then these city mayors were extremely impressed by this sophisticated new airport that would soon open outside of the city of Kuala Lumpur.

Soon afterwards, cities around Japan also started building brand new airport terminals, perhaps inspired by our KLIA. The thing is, the designs of all these Japan airports also adopted the Kurokawa’s architectural concept, with consistent designs for both the domestic and international terminals, all sitting under one roof.

Later, newly-built airports in China also seemed to be designed based on such a blueprint, with a similar “one-stop convenience” concept but with brighter, wider, taller, and bigger … everything. More importantly, the airports in China also prioritised efficient workflows.

You may not know this but KLIA was proudly named one of the world’s top 10 airports by Skytrax in 2001, 2010, 2011 and 2012. This shows that Malaysia’s ambitious mega airport project was indeed something we could take pride in, just like our badminton heroes, our national car Proton, and Petronas Twin Towers, among others. Without a doubt, Malaysia used to be such a bright shining star in the international arena in those days.

I actually still keep my very first iconic Proton Saga Knight, not just for sentimental reasons but because I am proud of it, of what the brand represents.

Unfortunately, having reached the pinnacle of success for a number of years, KLIA’s international rating began to slide, from 14th in 2013 to 44th in 2018, 62nd in 2022 and an embarrassing 67th in the latest 2023 report.

It’s unfortunate, but this is not altogether unexpected, as the airport’s downfall is not due to bad design or construction, but rather poor management.

I have to travel in and out of KLIA regularly for work, and that also gives me the opportunity to compare it with foreign airports that I have visited. From my personal experiences, I have discovered that while the other airports have made significant improvements over the years, ours seems to be completely stagnant, or even going backward!

I have a feeling that KLIA has not been managed with foresight. For example, we should have fixed or replaced the faulty Aerotrain during the pandemic when air traffic was scarce, instead of terminating the service and substituting it with shuttle buses when air traffic began to surge after the pandemic. This is absolutely embarrassing!

Moreover, the airport authorities should have anticipated the explosive growth in passenger volume after the pandemic, but… I guess they didn’t.

Terminal 1 at KLIa has improved its digital signboards, giving passengers better, faster information.

The walkways in the terminal seems to be getting narrower with so many cafes and boutiques at the sides. Where do passengers walk?

Speaking further about the Aerotrain: On Aug 16, 2023 Malaysia Airports (MAHB) terminated its original Aerotrain contractor due to delays and said that will engage a new replacement soon. The project is scheduled to be completed in March 2025 – will it? Many of us have reservations that this will happen as it is already the end of October.

Lest we forget, air passengers pay airport taxes to use an airport, and therefore they deserve much more decent facilities and better service quality.

I do have to point out that while KLIA’s washrooms have finally been upgraded and they are rather clean these days, the floor of some of the toilets are still wet, and some urinals are still smelly.

But to many airport users, the most unacceptable thing is the poor baggage delivery system.

Many have to wait a long time for their checked-in baggage to show up on the conveyor belt. I have even seen some business class passengers yelling, “Why does our baggage arrive so much later than economy class passengers’? Is this the special ‘business class service’ arranged by your ground staff?” while waiting at baggage collection.

In short, KLIA is full of problems. Immigration services and customs counters are a headache too. To make things worse, they don’t even know how to make travellers feel comfortable when they’re caught in bad situations like, for example, waiting in long queues.

Watching YouTube videos of foreign tourists complaining about their dismal experiences at KLIA, I couldn’t help but think that it is just a matter of time before our once grandiose airport will fall out of the world’s top 100 airports, for the simple reason that the Skytrax rating is based entirely on the evaluation of international air travellers.

We understand that MAHB, the operator of 39 airports in Malaysia and one in Turkiye(Sabiha Gökçen International Airport or ISG in Istanbul), made a net profit of RM58.18mil in the first quarter of this year and RM160.7mil in the last financial year in spite of big losses during the pandemic. Which means that today, MAHB has a bigger budget and should be able to engage more specialists to run its airport management taskforce. All of Malaysia’s international airports need to have immediate improvements and upgrades.

A new and experienced chief operating officer for MAHB, Gordon Andrew Stewart, was appointed and was already put to work earlier this month. Hopefully, he can bring his expertise to the company and transform our airports into something spectacular.

But first, Stewart may have to spend some time to understand the local working culture.

My advice to him and to MAHB in general is to open their hearts and hear from the passengers, and provide a better platform or system for us to give our genuine feedback and suggestions.

Leesan, the globe-trotting traveller who has visited 137 countries and seven continents, enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.

Published in STAR 2, 28 October 2023