Penang airport upgrade on hold, Chow says he can wait

The Penang International Airport is designed to accommodate 6.5 million passengers a year although it handled 8.3 million in 2019.

GEORGE TOWN: The state government today said it does not mind waiting for the international airport at Bayan Lepas to be upgraded as the aviation industry struggles to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This follows Putrajaya’s decision to put the proposed upgrading of the airport – once the country’s second busiest after KLIA – on hold pending a study.

At a press conference today, Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said that with the current passenger volume hovering at about 1,000 passengers a day, the capacity of the airport was good enough.

The Penang International Airport (PIA) recorded 8.3 million passenger movements last year, a 6.9% increase compared to 7.7 million in 2018, airport operator Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad’s 2019 annual report showed.

The airport is designed to take 6.5 million passengers a year and was last upgraded in 2010.

The proposed upgrading to cater to 16 million passengers, costing RM800 million, was approved by Putrajaya last year, after years of complaints that it was bursting at its seams.

The transport ministry said it will have to wait as it wanted to hold a “national airports study” to be ready in 2023, before any airport is built or upgraded, Parliament was told recently.

Asked if this meant the upgrading project was being cancelled, Chow said it was “understandable” given the present challenges faced by the airline industry.

He said airports were suffering losses and their operators would likely have dipped into their reserves to stay afloat.

“I think the (Penang) airport in its present state can accommodate the low number of passengers. It has been a few months since the operators had zero income. It would be a challenge to upgrade the airport now with limited financial resources,” he said.

Asked if the current low arrival period would be a good time to upgrade the airport, Chow said: “Even in peak time construction can still be carried out.”

The Penang Island City Council had approved MAHB’s planning permission last December, with the upgrading to be carried out in four phases.