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.

Penang Water Garden Not Wheelchair-Friendly

The Ministry of Tourism Malaysia spent RM7mil on the expansion of the Penang Botanic Gardens. It was completed last year. Two controversial arches were built at a cost of RM150,000 at the Penang Water Garden located beside the car park and just outside the old garden gates. Those two arches were later demolished following public outroar that they were unsightly and does not blend into the landscape. One of the arches was said to be tilting. The ministry allocated another RM70,000 for the demolition works.

News report mentioned that Penang Water Garden houses a complex of seven ponds, that altogether, cover the size of half a football field. This part of the expansion costs RM1.5mil. The ponds were cultivated with giant Victoria amazonica water lilies, lotuses and water plants. The Penang Water Garden is said to be the largest water garden in Malaysia.

No way for wheelchair user to get up the kerb and to the ramp at Penang Water Garden
No way for wheelchair user to get up the kerb and to the ramp at Penang Water Garden.
Photo by Wuan.

The Water Garden consists of several levels. There were two gentle ramps connecting the different levels. What exasperated me was that there were no ramps for wheelchair users to go up the kerbs from the road. One would expect that the Ministry of Tourism, Department of Irrigation and Drainage and other agencies responsible for this project would have the mind to include proper accessible facilities for disabled people visiting the gardens.

Unfortunately, RM220,000 was frittered away in building and then demolishing the arches while access needs of disabled visitors were not given due consideration at all. This is most disappointing especially when the Penang Botanic Gardens is popular among Penangites and tourists alike, and also the fact that the Persons with Disabilities Act has been in force since 2008.

FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment In Malaysia

The wheelchair rolls well on smooth surfaces. Roads, pavements, grass and pebbled paths is another story. The small front caster can easily get caught between bumps and cracks. Apart from making it difficult to push, they make rides bumpy which in turn causes spasms of the legs. Traversing these surfaces could quickly damage the wheelchair as well. I avoid such terrains as much as possible. For someone who likes the great outdoors, it is indeed a difficult choice for me to make.

This is the same dilemma wheelchair users all over face when we want to go off the beaten path, until the FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment was invented, that is. When I ordered the Tilite ZRA Series 2, I got the FreeWheel shipped together with the wheelchair to save on freight charges. With the FreeWheel hooked to the footrest, going across grassy fields or sandy beaches became a breeze. This practical mechanism is the brainchild of Pat Dougherty, a wheelchair user himself, who saw the need for an easier way to get the wheelchair across challenging terrains.

FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment in Gurney Drive, Penang, Malaysia
Peter Tan with Tilite ZRA Series 2 and the FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment in Gurney Drive, Penang, Malaysia.
Photo by Wuan.

The FreeWheel’s design is simple and ingenious. It consists of a 12.5 inch wheel attached to a fork. Attaching the Freewheel to the wheelchair is easy once the clamp is properly adjusted to fit the footrest. Swing the wheel out and place the clamp over the footrest. Pull the lever back and the FreeWheel is securely clamped to the footrest. Push the wheelchair forward to turn the wheel back. This lifts the front casters one inch off the ground. And all is good to go!

FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment in Gurney Drive, Penang, Malaysia
Closer view of Peter Tan with Tilite ZRA Series 2 and the FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment.
Photo by Wuan.

On my recent trip to Penang, I used the Freewheel at Gurney Drive, the Botanical Gardens and several other places. The ride was certainly smoother even over rough roads and paved walkways. Moving around was a joy. In tight spaces like at the food courts, I simply unclamped the FreeWheel, stored it by attaching it to the perch fastened to the back rigidizer bar. With the FreeWheel out of the way, I manuevered around crowds with ease. With the FreeWheel, I do not have to think twice about where I can go now. Using the wheelchair when I am out and about has become less inconvenient. Truly, the FreeWheel Wheelchair Attachment is the best thing since sliced bread for wheelchair users. Thanks, Pat, for a wonderful invention.