BEAT, AirAsia, MAHB and Aerobridges at KLIA2

The Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT) held a protest at Taman Jaya in Petaling Jaya yesterday (The Star – Group wants aerobridges at KLIA 2 – October 24, 2011) against the omission of aerobridges at KLIA2. BEAT is a cross-disability coalition with representation from disabled persons organisations (DPO) based in the Klang Valley. According to the group, the protest was “to reaffirm our call for aerobridges to be installed at KLIA2 for the safety, security and comfort of all passengers including disabled persons, elderly, children, pregnant women, parents with children in prams.” The first protest on the same issue was held at Bangsar LRT station on August 20, 2011.

I wholeheartedly support the call for aerobridges at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2). Currently, people with mobility limitations board aircrafts at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT-KLIA) using passenger boarding lift (ambulift) or have to be carried up the boarding stairs. AirAsia passengers who need to use the lift have to inform the airline 48 hours in advance failing which boarding could be denied. There is only one such lift at the LCCT-KLIA for this purpose.

The passenger boarding lift may not be available at all times. It could unavailable because it is being used for boarding at another aircraft at the same time. It could also be due to breakdown or maintenance. When this happens, disabled passengers have to be carried up the boarding stairs via the side-by-side two-person lift method. In my experience, this is not a safe way to board the plane or disembark from it. The steps of the boarding stairs are narrow and slippery. There are many things that could go wrong. The lifters may not have the skills for such lifting. They could lose their grip or lose their footing on the steps. One of them could lose strength on the way up.

I have been carried three times up and three time down like this and each time the fear of the three of us falling off the stairs overwhelmed me. There was one time when I was nearly dropped. The lifters, after hauling me up the stairs and into the aircraft, could not find a place to sit me down. They were exhausted and were fast losing their grip. Fortunately, a cabin crew quickly directed them to use the jump seat. Experiences like this are really not a good way to begin or end the journey with.

The aerobridge or passenger boarding bridge or jet bridge, is safe, convenient and comfortable to board and disembark from aircrafts. They protect passengers from the element, be it rain or shine. There is no need for passengers to huff and puff up the stairs with their luggages, children in tow or baby prams. The aerobridge makes it convenient for children and senior citizens without them having to climb up the stairs. It is a good example of universal design of facilities that benefit everyone.

The decision by Malaysia Airport Holdings Berhad (MAHB) not to install the aerobridges stemmed from AirAsia’s resistance in using them. The budget airline’s business model requires a quick 25-minute turnaround time for its aircrafts and no-frills service. Using aerobridges would purportedly increase the turnaround time and increase the airfare.

MAHB has revealed that it charges RM85 for the use of each aerobridge. Based on the full load of an Airbus A320 with 180 passengers, this translates to a mere 25 sen per passenger for an arriving and departing flight. MAHB stated that the design of the KLIA2 has provisions to accommodate the installation of aerobridges at any time when required AirAsia or other low-cost carriers (LCC).

While I support BEAT’s call for the installation of aerobridges at the KLIA2, I am of the opinion that the protest against MAHB was misdirected. True, MAHB is bending backwards by giving exemption to AirAsia for not using aerobridges. MAHB should be faulted for this but looking at the big picture, AirAsia is ultimately the source of this issue.

AirAsia and AirAsia X are the major airlines using the KLIA2. It makes no business sense for MAHB to install the 80 aerobridges at the cost of RM104 million if they are not going to be used. Each aerobridge costs RM1.3 million. It must be noted that AirAsia and AirAsia X are compelled to use aerobridges in foreign airports where no exemption is given for them not to.

BEAT has established a working relationship with AirAsia after the protest at the LCCT-KLIA in 2007. Its members conduct regular trainings for the airline’s cabin crew and ground crew in support and services for disabled passengers. BEAT also holds dialogues with the management of the airline on related issues. Therefore, BEAT should use its relationship and influence to advocate to AirAsia on the pertinent need for aerobridges at KLIA2.

In fact, I was involved in a five-day Training of Trainers for AirAsia Disability Equality Training (DET) and Disability Related Service Training (DRST) at AirAsia Academy that concluded last Friday. This five-day course was organised by BEAT under the auspices of AirAsia to equip disabled trainers from Indonesia and Thailand with the same methodology and modules for them to train AirAsia staff in their respective countries. To AirAsia’s credit, it is expanding the training for the ground crew and cabin crew in countries where it has a presence in order for disabled passengers to be better served.

On the contrary, in deciding not to use aerobridges at KLIA2, AirAsia has taken several steps backward. It is a shame that the most modern purpose-built low cost carrier terminal that costs more than RM2 billion will require passengers walk out on the tarmac and use boarding stairs. Even the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) and the Board of Airline Representatives were of the view that KLIA2 neeeds to have aerobridges, as reported in The Edge (Provisions made for aerobridges at KLIA2, Dewan Rakyat told – October 17, 2011).

Instead of taking AirAsia to task over this matter, BEAT has chosen to demonise MAHB instead. The root cause of this issue is glaringly not pointed out. There was little mention of AirAsia in the two protests. Why is BEAT playing tai chi here? Why is BEAT not grabbing the bull by the horns? Why is BEAT beating around the bush? Why has BEAT failed to advocate effectively to AirAsia on the need for aerobridges? These are questions begging answers.

AirAsia, BEAT And What Disabled People Really Need

AirAsia has finally launched the ambulift at the KLIA-LCCT after several months delay. The ambulift is to assist disabled people board and disembark from the aircraft. At the same time, the budget airline was reported to have said that another ambulift is based in the Kota Kinabalu International Airport. This is a good move on the airline’s part in moving towards making air travel more accessible for disabled people. For this, I would like to congratulate the Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT) for being able to convince AirAsia and its chief executive officer Dato’ Tony Fernandes that air travel should not be limited only for people who can walk.

While the ambulifts will ease one of the problems faced by disabled people flying with the airline, the cabin is still generally inaccessible, especially the toilets. No mention was made on whether all the aircrafts are equipped with aisle chairs as promised by Dato’ Fernandes. If not, BEAT must pursue this matter to ensure that disabled people will not face problems when they need to move around in the aircraft or use the toilet. The other matters that need to be looked into are indemnity forms, the RM12 charge for using the wheelchairs at the airport and proper handling of disabled persons and their wheelchairs. I believe some of those issues have been resolved. BEAT and AirAsia should come out and announce it publicly to prevent confusion and inconsistent imposition of policies by the airline’s staff.

Having said that, I would like to remind BEAT, especially Christine Lee and V. Murugeswaran who are leading the group, not to forget the purpose why the group was formed. Its main purpose was to advocate for accessible public transport which has been given scant attention of late. While they openly applaud the launching of the ambulifts, they seemed to have disregarded the fact that disabled people still do not have access to public transport to take them to the airport. What is the point of advocating for accessible air travel when disabled people cannot get to the airport? Not every disabled person can drive, afford to own a car or transfer into taxis.

BEAT should seriously consider reinitiating negotiations with RapidKL and related government ministries to ensure that the 100 RapidKL buses already fitted with ramps allow wheelchair users to use them. It is ironic that these buses with the wheelchair logos affixed to its exterior do not take wheelchair users at the moment because BEAT has refused to endorse the buses due to safety considerations. The ramps and wheelchair locking mechanisms were deemed unsuitable and non-functional. As far as I know, BEAT has not pursued this with RapidKL but prefer to concentrate most of its effort on AirAsia.

Disabled people like everyone else need access to public transport, namely buses and trains, for education, employment, medical appointments, social and religious functions, among others. While I agree that disabled people need to have access to air travel, BEAT should judiciously use its limited resources to advocate for an issue that will benefit the most people, not one that only a handful will be using. In my opinion, there must be a sense of priority and the priority now is public transport and not air travel.

Consider the following facts.
100 out of RapidKL’s 1000 buses are accessible = 10%
2 out of AirAsia’s 55 destinations are accessibe = 3.6%
The mode of transport that disabled people need to use more often

RapidKL bus driver assisting wheelchair user into the bus

While BEAT has been generous with its applause for AirAsia, it has been very critical of RapidKL’s efforts to the extent of refusing to endorse the 100 buses. It simply does not make any sense. We have here 100 buses that will benefit all wheelchair users in the Klang Valley but BEAT prefers to ignore that fact and openly throw its support for AirAsia’s 2 ambulifts. BEAT’s logic in refusing to endorse those buses was because the ramps were too short and may cause wheelchairs to tip backwards. During discussions with RapidKL, the bus operator has informed BEAT that wheelchair users are only allowed to board the buses with the assistance of the bus drivers. That should reduce the risk of wheelchairs tipping backwards.

Disabled person being carried up the plane stairs into AirAsia plane

How dangerous can that be compared to carrying a disabled person up or down the flight of narrow plane stairs? Having been carried up not once but six times up such stairs, twice with Malaysia Airlines in 1999 when it was still flying into Subang International Airport and 4 times with AirAsia in 2007, I can attest to the recurring fear of being dropped or the ground crews slipping on the steps each time I was carried. The AirAsia ground crews, and Malaysia Airlines at that time, were neither properly trained in doing the two-man carry nor observed safety procedures when performing this task. Who will be held responsible should any mishap occur while being carried up or down the stairs?

News report stated that 40 disabled people attended the launching of the ambulift. The leaders of BEAT should ask themselves how many of those 40 disabled people fly frequently and which mode of transport they need most. Were they able to use public transport to get to the airport? If not, why? Bread and butter issues of disabled people should be resolved first before anything else. That should be the priority. When disabled people cannot even get into public buses to move around conveniently around Kuala Lumpur, why is BEAT committing so much of its limited resources into advocating for accessibility in air travel?

BERNAMA
April 12, 2008 16:58 PM

Airasia Provides Ambulift Facility For Disabled Passengers

SEPANG, April 12 (Bernama) — To provide accessibility for disabled passengers, AirAsia Bhd has placed an ambulift at the low cost carrier terminal (LCCT) here and another in Kota Kinabalu.

Group chief executive officer Datuk Tony Fernandes said Saturday the facility will provide better mobility and comfort for the airline’s disabled passengers.

Previously, disabled passengers were physically carried by AirAsia’s ground staff to board the aircraft, Fernandes told reporters after the launch of the facility at the LCCT here.

According to him, installation of the facility at the two airports cost RM1.3 million, including training for the staff.

The airline is discussing with the Kuching Airport authority to place an ambulift there.

It is also looking at placing ambulifts in other airports such as Penang, Jakarta and Bangkok.

Up to four disabled passengers are allowed on a flight, and two of them can be quadriplegics.

AirAsia, said Fernandes, is in talks with Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd to provide free aerobridge use for disabled passengers at airports that do not have ambulifts.

— BERNAMA

The Star Online
Sunday April 13, 2008
Ambulift launched at LCCT

AirAsia launches ambulift for disabled passengers

SEPANG: AirAsia launched its first ambulift at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) here to allow disabled passengers to board the aircraft instead of being physically carried into the plane by AirAsia workers.

The airline bought two ambulifts, one to be placed at LCCT and another one at Kota Kinabalu airport.

Ambulift is a lift that is attached to the back of a van to lift passengers from the aircraft to the ground so they do not have to use the steps.
Disabled-friendly move: An AirAsia flight attendant posing with disabled people in front of the new ambulift at the LCCT at the KL International Airport on Saturday.

Nine months ago, members of the Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT) representing the disabled community gathered at the LCCT to protest the carrier’s “discriminatory” policy and demanded disabled-friendly services by AirAsia.

They asked the airline to provide an ambulift to allow disabled passengers to board the aircraft instead of being physically carried into the plane by AirAsia workers.

Former Transport Minister Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy then ordered Malaysia Airports Berhad and AirAsia to solve the problem.

AirAsia chief executive officer Datuk Tony Fernandez said providing the ambulift was only one part of their initiatives to be disabled-friendly.

He said they were also in talks with Malaysia Airports to provide free aerobridge usage at airports that do not have ambulifts and give staff hands-on training by engaging those from the disabled community.

“We will also enhance our services and accessibility where possible and we hope to set the example for other LCCTs and airlines to work towards an improved environment for our disabled friends,” he said.

However, he hoped Malaysia Airports would improve airport facilities and provide level walkways and designated car parks.

Fernandez also said that the AirAsia’s A320 aircraft could only take a maximum of four disabled guests per flight and two of the seats could accommodate quadriplegic flyers.

BEAT coordinator Christina Lee welcomed AirAsia’s move to introduce disability equality training for the cabin crew and staff.

“This will give them a better understanding of “disability” issues as well as tips on how to relate to and assist disabled passengers,” she said.

AirAsia’s Press Release:
Greater Comfort and Accessibility for AirAsia Disabled Friends

AirAsia – Dato’ Tony Fernandes Announces Measures To Resolve Problems Faced By Disabled Passengers

AirAsia Press press conference backdrop at LCCT-KLIA
AirAsia Press press conference backdrop at LCCT-KLIA.
Photo by Wuan.

It is difficult not to love Dato’ Tony Fernandes, Group Chief Executive Officer of AirAsia, especially if one is a disabled person. Immediately after the protest by the Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT), Dato’ Fernandes personally met with members of BEAT to discuss the ways to resolve issues faced by disabled persons wanting to book seats to fly with AirAsia.

AirAsia GCEO Dato' Tony Fernandes giving his speech at the press conference at LCCT-KLIA
AirAsia GCEO Dato’ Tony Fernandes giving his speech at the press conference at LCCT-KLIA.
Photo by Wuan.

Following that meeting on July 20, AirAsia held a press conference yesterday (August 4, 2007) to officially announce the measures taken by the company to ensure that disabled persons will be able to fly with the airline. Dato’ Fernandes told members of the press and about 50 BEAT members who were present at LCCT-KLIA yesterday that AirAsia has purchased 2 ambulifts – one for LCCT-KLIA and the other for Kota Kinabalu International Airport – to ease the boarding and disembarking of people with reduced mobility and disabled persons.

Members of BEAT at AirAsia's press conference at LCCT-KLIA
Members of BEAT at AirAsia’s press conference at LCCT-KLIA.
Photo by Wuan.

He also announced the current fleet of AirAsia’s Airbus 320 planes and all planes in the future will be equipped with at least one aisle chair for the mobility of passengers. All toilets inside the aircrafts will be affixed with handle bars for the convenience of passengers. After the press conference, members of the press and BEAT were invited to test out an ambulift similar to the two that AirAsia have purchased and will be operational in 3 months. As part of the program to sensitise AirAsia staff on disability issues, Dato’ Fernandes invited BEAT to work with AirAsia Academy in training on those matters. He has offered to employ 3 staff at AirAsia’s call centre and a few more in guest relations positions. That was not all!

BEAT Coordinator Christine Lee giving her speech at AirAsia's Press press conference at LCCT-KLIA
BEAT Coordinator Christine Lee giving her speech at AirAsia’s Press press conference at LCCT-KLIA.
Photo by Wuan.

Dato’ Fernandes has allocated space on the skin of AirAsia’s newest plane, the 50th in the fleet that we had the privilege to see yesterday, to prominently promote BEAT’s and disabled persons’ cause like what is being done with Manchester United and the Williams F1 Team both of which AirAsia is sponsoring. That is not all yet! He has also requested from BEAT a tagline, quote or slogan for the message to be carried by Rooney and Ronaldo, both players of Manchester United. How cool can that be?

Dato' Tony Fernandes posing with BEAT members applauding AirAsia for resolving issues faced by disabled passengers
Dato’ Tony Fernandes posing with BEAT members applauding AirAsia
for resolving issues faced by disabled passengers.
Photo by Wuan.

I was a skeptic – still a little skeptical until I see the ambulifts and fly with AirAsia – but I have to give it to Dato’ Tony for being the only public figure in Malaysia who has taken the problems faced by disabled persons seriously and openly addressed it immediately. He has set a standard for all other corporations and the government to follow in making Malaysia an inclusive society. I like most his attitude when he said to take a negative and turn it into something positive.

An ambulift similar to the one that AirAsia has purchased parked beside the newest aircraft in the fleet at LCCT-KLIA
An ambulift similar to the one that AirAsia has purchased parked beside
the newest aircraft in the fleet at LCCT-KLIA.
Photo by Wuan.

Syabas Dato’ Fernandes; Syabas AirAsia; and most of all Syabas to my fellow advocates in BEAT, especially Christine and Ragu for making this happen. The journey may still be long but this success with AirAsia has shown us all that with the right attitude, anything is possible and the sky may not even be the limit.

More photos:

Ambulift docking beside AirAsia's newest Airbus 320
Ambulift docking beside AirAsia’s newest Airbus 320.
Photo by Wuan.

BEAT members watching a demonstration of the ambulift at LCCT-KLIA
BEAT members watching a demonstration of the ambulift at LCCT-KLIA.
Photo by Wuan.

BEAT members testing out the ambulift at LCCT-KLIA
BEAT members testing out the ambulift at LCCT-KLIA.
Photo by Wuan.

Peter Tan tranferring from plane seat to the aisle chair
Peter Tan tranferring from plane seat to the aisle chair. Holding the
chair from behind is AirAsia Executive Vice President Bo Lingam.
Photo by Wuan.

Peter Tan trying to get into the toilet in AirAsia's Airbus 320
Peter Tan trying to get into the toilet in AirAsia’s Airbus 320.
Photo by Wuan.

AirAsia's boarding stairs at LCCT-KLIA
AirAsia’s boarding stairs at LCCT-KLIA.
Photo by Wuan.

Read also:
AirAsia Still Practices Discrimination Against Disabled People
AirAsia, BEAT And What Disabled People Really Need