There’s the airport in Penang, do we need more, expert asks

With proper upgrades, the Penang International Airport has potential to handle more flights, says an expert. (File pic)

PETALING JAYA: A transport expert has questioned proposals to build new airports in the north, and has instead suggested the upgrading of the Penang International Airport because it was already serving as a main hub for the northern corridor.

Roger Teoh said building a new terminal and increasing airside equipment at the Penang airport could solve current capacity shortages at a much lower cost than building entire new airports and runways.

A PKR assemblyman had recently urged Putrajaya to mediate between the northern states which are eager to build new airports to avoid wasting money.

Bukit Tambun assemblyman Goh Choon Aik also called for a comprehensive master plan for airports.

The proposal for a new airport was welcomed by Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, who said it could meet the island’s needs.

Separately, Kedah is reportedly keen on building its first international airport in Kulim, as is Perak, which wants to build an international airport at Seri Iskandar, 50 km southwest of Ipoh.

Teoh, citing London’s Gatwick Airport as an example, said the single runway airport had handled 282,000 flights last year, including take-offs and landings.

In contrast, the Penang airport only handled 70,609 flights.

Roger Teoh.

“This comparison shows that existing infrastructure can be utilised more efficiently, where the number of aircraft movements in the existing runway in PIA can handle at least four times more aircraft movements with further optimisation,” said Teoh, who is currently pursuing a PhD in transport studies at the Imperial College in the UK.

He said optimisation to boost the Penang airport’s capacity could be easier to achieve.

“The airspace above Penang is not congested relative to the London airspace, that is one of the busiest in the world,” he added.

He also questioned the Penang government’s projection that the airport in Bayan Lepas will reach full capacity in 20 to 30 years.

Teoh said the projection would depend on assumptions on population growth, gross domestic product and air travel demands.

“The further we extrapolate in time, the larger the uncertainties in our forecasts. It is not necessary to try to solve a problem today where it could only emerge in 30 years.”

Another transport expert, Goh Bok Yen, agreed with the call for a master plan for airports, adding such a plan should look into regional and international connectivity.

“Let the masterplan decide on the status and hierarchy of airports, whether the airports function as international, domestic and feeder airports, and whether they function better as passenger or freight airports.”

Goh, with over 30 years of experience in transport consultancy, said it was better to continue with the existing “hub and spoke” model for airports to avoid saturation and ensure volume.

The hub and spoke model essentially sees global air traffic coming to hubs like international airports before being directed to smaller airports.

In Malaysia, the five hubs are the KLIA hub – made up of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and budget airline terminal klia2 – as well as the Langkawi, Penang, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching international airports.

Goh said although airports provide linkages, there was still a need for volume, without which there will be a lower frequency of flights.

He said airlines would not be interested to fly to airports without the volume factor.

“So if people think we need more airports in a certain place, the best person to ask would actually be the airlines.

“What is the point of waiting for days just to catch a direct flight from one state to an international destination when a bus or train ride which takes a few hours can get you to a hub with frequent flights?”