PETALING JAYA, Nov 1 — Prolonged repairs on the faulty third runway between Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the KLIA2 has caused daily landing delays of up to six or seven minutes per flight, AirAsia Group airlines have said.

AirAsia Berhad and AirAsia X’s respective chief executive officers Riad Asmat and Benyamin Ismail said in an interview with Malay Mail yesterday that the resulting delays have caused losses that may run into millions, as the carriers are forced to cut capacity and increase maintenance spending.

To the low-cost carrier, the problematic Runway 3, which Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) announced this month would be partially shut down for “upgrades”, outlined AirAsia’s frustration with the country’s main airport operator.

Riad said this month’s closure was the latest in a series of problems dogging the landing path, something AirAsia has repeatedly requested MAHB to address. 

In the past, there had been at least two repairs involving Runway 3 that spanned months, and Riad said the faulty tarmac had also damaged the company’s planes.

“You can find potholes and sinkholes and what not,” the AirAsia CEO said during a visit to Malay Mail’s office here yesterday.

“Now we only have two-halves of a runway which is delaying flights... you know we’re forced to cut capacity by at least 7 to 10 per cent.”  

And with Visit Malaysia 2020 just two months away, there are concerns that delays in repairing the third runway could lead to wider complications that may jeopardise the government’s own tourism campaign, and with that a key source of revenue.

One runway less means airlines could be forced to fly fewer flights and bring in much fewer visitors to the country, on top of losing money to maintain an idle workforce and grounded planes.  

But Benyamin said just like the many grievances over how MAHB is running airports in the country, AirAsia’s concerns often fall on deaf ears. 

Visit Malaysia 2020 in jeopardy?

The low-cost carriers estimate that the mere minutes in late arrival, heightened costs and reduced efficiency at an airport could have a direct influence on where tourists choose to land.

A high airport and tourism tax, unnecessary delays caused by congested processing counters or slow luggage pickups could be a major turn-off, and often could prompt tourists to avoid flying into a country altogether. 

And as the Malaysian government hopes to get at least 30 million more inbound tourists to make Visit Malaysia 2020 successful, AirAsia, which is responsible for the largest bulk of foreign tourist inflow, said there is an urgent need to revamp KLIA2’s management. 

“From the perspective of tourism, people will shy away,” Benyamin said. 

“Now with the issues at KLIA2 and all that, people won’t come.” 

Runway 3 at KL International Airport has been undergoing pavement rehabilitation work since October 2, according to the plans outlined in the KUL Runway Sustainability Master Plan, MAHB said in a statement released on October 1. 

This repair work will require a combination of partial and night closures for the next nine-and-a-half months until July 15, 2020, an exercise that will mainly involve pavement overlaying work to address potential “future issues”, the regulator added.

AirAsia X’s Benyamin noted that is already half a year into Visit Malaysia 2020.

“That’s just crazy. The work is expected to go on until mid-year. When is Visit Malaysia 2020?” he asked.

RM300 million in non-monetary losses

In early October, AirAsia Group filed a RM480 million civil suit for losses and damages incurred from what it claimed was negligence on the part of Malaysian Airports (Sepang) Sdn Bhd (MASSB).

In its suit, it claimed inefficiency issues at KLIA2 resulted in over RM300 million worth of potential “non-monetary” losses, which included estimation of losses in potential passengers caused by MASSB’s failure to fix the low-cost terminal’s third runway, and manage KLIA2 better.

MASSB is a unit of MAHB.

AirAsia Berhad’s Riad said the dispute between them and the airport managers signifies more than just personality or a clash of egos, but points to a wider conundrum dogging the entire tourism sector, which, over the years, has seen a decline in traffic and profits.

The AirAsia CEO claimed the same bureaucratic hurdles, which weaken the country’s airports management, like high taxes and poor planning, have hurt other industry players as well.

“When I talked to the hoteliers, the tourism industry itself, they [tell me] they are struggling,” he said.

“Cheapest rates, a capacity of 50 per cent... but they always say they have to pay this tax and that tax.”

Malaysia saw the number of inbound passengers drop drastically in the last five years, although the government said it was mostly due to a sharp decrease in the number of Chinese tourists flying in triggered by the MH370 disaster.

In 2017, the tourism sector contracted negative 3 per cent. Last year saw an improvement, though it remained in the negative zone, while its neighbours Singapore and Thailand posted healthy growth even as their currency strengthened and the ringgit got cheaper.

Still, AirAsia Berhad, which operates the group’s short-haul business, was able to bring in nine million foreign passengers into the country while its sister AirAsia X brought in three million more in 2018. 

Malaysia truly unattractive? 

But the company said it feared tourists’ patience may be running thin. 

Riad said, with Visit Malaysia 2020 just two months away, all stakeholders must urgently set differences aside and work together. 

The government has set a target of over 30 million new passengers entering the country next year, but the AirAsia Berhad CEO said the relevant parties risk undermining the goalsby continuing to ignore the grievances of industry players.

For the low-cost carrier, this means fixing key problems with the country’s main airports, starting with the efficient maintenance of its operations, like improving its immigration check-in systems, which inbound and domestic passengers have long complained about.

“I definitely can bring more people into Malaysia if the environment is conducive for my business,” he said.

“My business model only requires simplicity: Fly [in people]. But nobody wants to hang around the airport [that long].”