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.

Of KLIA2 Aerobridges And The Disability Movement In Malaysia

When the disability movement in Malaysia does not speak in one voice, everybody becomes confused, disabled people themselves included. The issue of aerobridges at KL International Airport 2 (KLIA2) clearly shows the split.

Do disabled people need aerobridges to board planes at the KLIA2? Christine Lee, whelchair user and co-ordinator of the Barrier-Free Environment and Accessible Transport Group (BEAT) thinks it is needed and was quoted by Bernama as saying:

“The MAHB decision not to include aerobridges is a step backward and taken in the wrong direction,” she told reporters at a gathering attended by some 30 people with various disabilities to express their displeasure over this matter, here today.

“If underdeveloped countries can have aerobridges at their airports, why is Malaysia, which is a step away from developed nation status, regressing to third world infrastructure and service provision,” said Lee of the Barrier-free Environment and Accessible Transport (BEAT).

She added that aerobridges should and must be made a universal feature in all airport designs and developments.

(Disabled Community Pushes For Aerobridges At KLIA2 – August 20, 2011)

However, Anthony Thanasayan who is also a wheelchair user and Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya (MBPJ) councillor opines otherwise as reported in The Star:

He said he personally did not think it necessary for the aerobridges to be installed as ambulifts could cater for the disabled.

“What’s wrong with using ambulifts? Able-bodied passengers don’t need the aerobridges,” he said, adding that he was more concerned with the toilet and ramp designs at the new low-cost carrier terminal.

(Disabled group insists on aerobridge at new KLIA2 terminal – August 21, 2011)

Who should Malaysia Airports, and for that matter, the government and all other infrastructure providers, listen to? One party says we need aerobridges which is not only a convenience for disabled people but also to senior citizens, pregnant women, children and adults with prams. On the other hand, the other party says that ambulifts are sufficient.

Anthony was further reported to have argued against the use of aerobridge in Free Malaysia Today:

Thanasayan, a disabled himself felt that aerobridges were too expensive a commitment.

He suggested instead the use of the portable ambulifts in airports.

“The ambulift is more suitable as it is portable.

“Having an aerobridge will increase cost for passengers by 20%.

“It is unfair to shift the cost to able-bodied passengers.

“I have been carried up into planes in the US because the smaller airports does not have aerobridges and ambulifts,” said Thanasayan, who is the president of Petpositiev and an activist for the disabled community.

(‘Inconsiderate’ MAHB, Air Asia slammed – August 20, 2011)

This disagreement cannot come at a worse time, especially when the public and private sectors are beginning to warm up to the concept of right of access to the built-environment for disabled people. This right is recognized in the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 and clearly stated in Clause 26 (Access to public facilities, amenities and services and buildings) and Clause 27 (Access to public transport facilities).

Access for disabled persons should not be exclusive, meaning, as far as possible, we do not advocate for special or separate facilities. This is where universal design comes in. This concept promotes that the built-environment and products are made accessible and usable to both non-disabled people and disabled people.

The importance that the Malaysian government accords to universal design is reflected in the formation of the Universal Design and Built Environment Committee (Jawatankuasa Reka Bentuk Sejagat Dan Alam Bina) under the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (Majlis Kebangsaan Bagi Orang Kurang Upaya).

The National Council was constituted under Clause 3 of the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 and is chaired by the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development. Unfortunately, the same National Council did not make the effort to ensure that the facilities at KLIA2 are inclusive and universally usable.

Aerobridges are a good example of universal design. It provides convenience to all categories of passengers boarding and disembarking from aircrafts irrespective of weather. Wheelchair users can go right to the boarding door before transferring to a boarding chair to get into the plane. Likewise, senior citizens and non-disabled adult passengers with children, prams and luggages in tow can walk right up to the boarding door without having to heave kids and luggages up the boarding stairs.

To answer Anthony’s question of “What’s wrong with using ambulifts?” My answer is that there is absolutely nothing wrong in using ambulifts for boarding in airports that do not have boarding bridges. However, in the case of KLIA2, it is built from the ground up and “provisions have been made in the design of the terminals at the new low cost carrier terminal, the KLIA2, to accommodate the installation of aerobridges, if required at any time by AirAsia group or other low cost carriers (LCCs).” (The Star – New LCT designed to enable installation of aerobridges – July 15, 2011). So why not install the aerobridges for the convenience and safety of everyone?

Acording the a statement by Malaysia Airports dated July 15, 2011 with the heading No Aerobridges At KLIA2 To Cater For AirAsia’s Requirement, it was mentioned that aerobridges are mandatory for airlines in other countries in the region. A calculation of the cost per passenger for the usage was also furnished.

Airports in other countries in the region make it mandatory for airlines to use aerobridges where provided, in order to enhance passenger convenience, safety and security. Should the airlines choose not to use aerobridges, they then have to park the aircraft in a remote position and bus the passengers to the terminal. AirAsia had explained that they use aerobridges at these other countries as they are compelled to adhere to the regulatory requirements at these airports, as no exemptions are given.

Based on AirAsia’s decision not to use aerobridges at klia2, the terminal for LCCs, even during inclement weather or for long haul operations, the terminal is being constructed without the installation of aerobridges and instead ramps will be provided. As AirAsia and AirAsiaX would be the major airlines at klia2, it may not be worthwhile to incur the cost if the aerobridges are not going to be used. However provision has been made in the design of the terminal to accommodate the installation of aerobridges, if so required at any time, by AirAsia group or any other LCCs. Discussions will be held with other LCCs as well on their requirements.

The current charge to the airline for the use of the aerobridge is RM85.00 per usage. Based on a full A320 aircraft carrying 180 passengers for both arriving and departing flights, the cost of using the aerobridge works out to be less than 25 sen per passenger. This makes Malaysia Airports’ charge for the aerobridge the lowest in the region.

Malaysia Airports has continually received numerous feedbacks from the public requesting that all airlines be required to use aerobridges in order to avoid inconvenience to passengers. Tan Sri Bashir added, “As such, we will continue to engage AirAsia and AirAsiaX, as well as other airlines to look into the possibility of further aligning their operations to the needs of passengers.”

If other countries are already imposing the mandatory use of aerobridges, why are we arguing against it here? It is a matter of regulatory requirements at those airports and airlines have no choice but to comply. The costs are passed down to passengers in the form of airport tax and passengers using those airports have no issue with it.

In the case of aerobridge charges at KLIA2, is 25 sen per passenger an excessive amount for a measure of convenience and safety, irrespective of whether one is a disabled person or not? I find it very surprising for Anthony to say that it is unfair for non-disabled passengers to bear the cost of providing such facilities to disabled passengers in Malaysia. Each and every passenger in the countries where aerobridge is mandatory has to pay for the usage and it is not due to providing for the needs of disabled passengers but by the force of regulation.

Malaysia have similar regulations as stated by the Malaysia Airports statement. Why then is it so different in Malaysia that disabled people are singled out and blamed should such charges be imposed? It is a regulatory requirement and has nothing to do with whether the facilities are for disabled passengers or otherwise. Therefore, the issue of passing on the cost to non-disabled passengers is untenable and without basis.

What is disappointing is that exemption is given to AirAsia and other low-cost carriers that are currently operating at KLIA-LCCT and will be operating at KLIA2 to not use aerobridges. This is at the expense of security, convenience and safety of passengers in addition to imposing a great inconvenience to disabled passengers who have to depend on ambulifts for boarding failing which we have to be bodily carried up the narrow boarding stairs. This is dangerous in many aspects, for the passenger and the crews carrying the passenger.

Malaysia Airports further stated that ramps will be provided in place of aerobridges. It was not elaborated what kind of ramps these were and whether wheelchair users can independently ascend these ramps. One point I have to wholeheartedly agree with Christine is that Malaysia is very close to becoming a developed nation but has unfortunately regressed to becoming third world again by this act of not using aerobridges, especially for a modern airport such as the KLIA2 that is being built at a cost of RM2bil and will become operational by the fourth quarter of 2012.

The issue of aerobridges is not limited only to KLIA2. It involves all major airports in the country where low-cost carriers fly to, like Penang and Kota Kinabalu. Malaysia Airports must seriously consider the views of all stakeholders in this matter as it involves the comfort, convenience and safety of passengers using the airports under its management.

At the same time, disabled advocates should take a step back to see what damage the aerobridge debacle has done to the disability movement in Malaysia. I am very concerned with the disunity displayed when confronted by major issues such as this. It is as if the head knows not what the tail is doing. If we cannot speak in one voice convincingly, no one will ever take us seriously again.

Engaging in one-upsmanship where disability issues are concerned benefits no one. In the end, the disabled community as a whole loses and suffers the consequences of disabled advocates cancelling each other out with contradictory statements.

I sincerely urge Christine and Anthony, as leaders of the respective groups, to come together to trash out the differences and come out with a common statement in this issue for the sake of all disabled people in Malaysia. Please take to heart the very apt Malay proverb: Bersatu teguh, bercerai roboh (United we stand, divided we fall).

Can Air Asia Really Give A Better Deal?

AirAsia at KLIA LCCT
Photo by Wuan.

The government has given the greenlight for another Low-Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) to be jointly developed under a private finance initiative between conglomerate Sime Darby Bhd and AirAsia. The proposed airport currently dubbed the KLIA East would be built on a 2,800ha plot of land in Labu which is between Nilai and Bandar Enstek.

The Star reported in AirAsia: We can give better deals with own airport that the airline’s budget fares will go even lower with at least a 15% reduction in prices when the airline’s proposed low-cost terminal opens in Labu, Negri Sembilan, in February 2011. That is good news for travellers who are always on the lookout for the best deals in air fares to stretch their ringgit even further.

However, my concerns are more than cheaper air fares. Will the new terminal be built according to the principles of universal design? Will disabled people have unimpeded access to all public areas in the terminal? Will wheelchair users still need to board the aircraft via an ambulift? If we have to and when one is unavailable will there be a safer and more convenient method of boarding other than to physically carry us up to the aircraft? Will this better deal include a waiver of the RM12 fee for using wheelchairs provided by the airline? Really, can AirAsia give a better deal to all its passengers irrespective of whether they are disabled people or otherwise with its own airport?

The Star Online
Sunday December 21, 2008
AirAsia: We can give better deals with own airport

KUALA LUMPUR: AirAsia’s budget fares will go even lower with at least a 15% reduction in prices when the airline’s proposed low-cost terminal opens in Labu, Negri Sembilan, in February 2011.

A senior AirAsia official said the airline’s plan was always to look for a cheaper venue to lower costs as it was paying about RM100mil in airport fees yearly to Malaysia Airports Bhd.

“We have been looking for another place for a long time, whether it was to buy or build a new airport,” he told The Star yesterday.

The official said the current terminal in Sepang was only a temporary measure as it could comfortably handle only 10 million passengers yearly.

“By March next year, it would reach 15 million. AirAsia needs an airport that can handle more than 15 million by 2011,” he said.

The Cabinet on Friday gave the greenlight for the new RM1.6bil airport to be developed under a private finance initiative between conglomerate Sime Darby Bhd and AirAsia on a 2,800ha plot in Labu, which is between Nilai and Bandar Enstek.

The new terminal will be large enough to handle some 15 million passengers yearly and will feature a wider array of shops as part of an integrated city in Labu, comprising five townships and facilities for education, health, sports, high technology and entertainment.

Closer to the nation’s capital than the current low-cost carrier terminal, a 7km link to the North-South Expressway was also slated to be built, along with an Express Rail Link to KL International Airport.

“We will provide shuttles between the main terminal and LCCT. The road and rail links between KLIA and the new LCCT would also be privately financed,” he said.

The AirAsia official said the cost of operating the new airport would be lowered by incorporating advanced technology and it being run privately.

“The airport will be built entirely by us. The latest technology and better retail facilities will mean more money. More money will mean lower airport tax and fares.”

Asked if MAB would be involved in the deal, the official said MAB was not involved in the project but did not discount the possibility that it would be made a shareholder.

According to him, the proposal was brought up by Sime Darby in the first place as they wanted an airport in the centre of a large development project – to turn the area into an Asean community hub.