Connecting the Asia-Pacific: The Airports of Malaysia

Airports & Airlines
Ahmed El Dahan
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10
min read
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August 17, 2021

Malaysian Aviation saw its humble beginnings in 1929, when the wooden Taiping Aerodrome was constructed by the British for cargo and civilian use away from military activity. Fast forward to contemporary times and the country has grown to have a diverse pool of 62 airports and airstrips, eight of which have international certification. Contrasting with its timber initiation, the country has grown to have some of the most impressive airports in the Asia-Pacific region.

All the airports along with the Malaysian airspace are governed by the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia whilst Malaysia Airports Holding Berhad is the company that leads in airport management in the country.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport

Kuala Lumpur International Airport

Malaysia’s main passenger and cargo air transport portal, Kuala Lumpur International is renowned for being one of the busiest and largest aviation facilities in the world. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the airport hit a new traffic record in 2019 breaking the 60 million passenger mark.

Kuala Lumpur International was first brought to the drawing table in 1990; when Malaysian authorities came to realize that Subang International Airport (now Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah International Airport) had been conceived with limited expansion potential and would be unable to accommodate for the rapidly increasing passenger and cargo traffic the country was anticipating. Costing around $3.5 billion, the airport was designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and was built in four and a half years by a 25,000 individual workforce pushing round-the-clock hours, making it the fastest airport ever built, an impressive feat relative to its massive size.

Located 45km south of the capital in the Sepang District of Selangor, the airport covers a total of 100km2 with its building rising five stories plus a basement level. It consists of two terminals, KLIA1 and KLIA2, and together they have 10 gates. Terminal 1 is used primarily by Malaysian Airlines and other international flyers whilst the latter is the budget airline terminal that was designated for Air Asia. The two terminals are 1.5km with a shuttle train connecting them. In terms of aesthetics, the airport was designed to capture as much natural light as possible, heavily influenced by Islamic design with the inclusion of domes along with geometric art. Topping off, the airport is encompassed by vegetation planted to resemble a tropical rainforest.

To date, the airport is owned by the Malaysian government, whilst being managed by Malaysia Airports Berhad. It has three parallel asphalt-concrete runways, the longest of which measures 4,019m, the second-longest 4,000m and the shortest counting 3,960m. Given the size of the premises, air traffic is monitored by two control towers situated on the east and west sides of the airport. At 133.8m the West ATC tower was the tallest in the world until it was surpassed by the Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport in 2017.

Aside from Malaysian airlines, the airport welcomes an impressive roster of premium and budget airlines, along with cargo transporters; with airlines such as British Airways, Air France, China Airlines, Himalayan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, and Qatari and many others on the airport’s runways.

Kota Kinabalu International Airport

Kota Kinabalu International Airport

As the second busiest airport in Malaysia, Kota Kinabalu International serves the state capital of Sabah and is located 8km southwest from the city of Kota Kinabalu. The airport is also the main access point for the island of Borneo.

The airport started its life as a military airfield during the second world war, then known as Jesselton Airfield. In the aftermath, it was handed to the Department of Civil Aviation of North Borneo (Sabah) who took charge of its maintenance and operations. During the late 1970s to 80s, the airport was given a new terminal that was built on the other side of its single 3,780m asphalt runway which soon came to replace its original military-style terminal. By 1992, the airport management was handed to Malaysia Airports Handling Berhad.

Known as a medium-sized airport, it was given a new terminal in 2008 to be equipped with modern facilities along with providing passengers with better commercial and dining choices. It is well connected with many of the aviation portals in the Asia-Pacific region and regularly sees traffic from such flyers as Air Busan, Air Seoul, Malaysia Airlines, Scoot and Looong Air.

Penang International Airport

Penang International Airport

Also one of the busiest airports in the country, Penang International is found near the Bayan Lepas region at the southeastern tip of Penang Island, approximately 16km from the city center of the island’s capital, Georgetown. Opened in 1935, it is the oldest airport in the country, previously known as Bayan Lepas International Airport.

In June 2010 the airport was given an $80 million expansion project to increase its operational capacity to 5 million passengers to accommodate for increasing passenger demands. Completed in three phases; the first aimed to improve infrastructure, basic facilities and existing buildings, the second focused on terminal improvement whilst the final dealt with exteriors and airside facilities. The total area of the airport was increased to 52,000m2 from the original 27,500m2 allowing the airport to accommodate 2,000 passengers per hour. As part of the expansion project, the airport received such enhancements as a new baggage handling system, improved seating, high-tech custom screening facilities, and better aircraft parking bays. Meanwhile whilst the existing terminal was retained, it was heavily renovated with a modern design over its ageing aesthetics to give passengers a more pleasant experience.

The airport links several southeastern Asian cities together and regular flyers that touchdown on the premises including AirAsia, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Batik Air.

Kuching International Airport

Kuching International Airport

Built by the British Government of Sarawak in the 1940s near the town of Kuching, this airport soon became the gateway to Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (now Sabah). Initial traffic to the airport saw Dakota aircraft from Singapore and other regional destinations. By 1954 the airport saw the introduction of scheduled services of both passenger and cargo flights. Over the years, continued improvements gave the airport better facilities, particularly in 1971 when the Sarawak region officially joined the Malaysian government, who in turn hired a team of Canadian aviation consultants who laid plans for an improved runway capable of handling heavier aircraft along with a new terminal building. By 1976 the airport had been given a new 2,454m runway and was prepared to welcome Boeing 707 aircraft.

Today the airport has grown to be the fourth busiest in Malaysia; equipped with a modern terminal, last expanded in 2006, it can accommodate five million passengers annually and acts as a secondary hub for both Malaysia Airlines, and AirAsia operating both domestic and international flights. Having served 5.6 million travelers in 2019, it is one of the most important gateways to East Malaysia.

Gaining Momentum

With so many airport facilities both practical and internationally certified, Malaysia has grown to be one of the most important aviation hubs in the Asia Pacific region. With the record-breaking Kuala Lumpur International Airport along with the others such Penang and Kuching being gateways to regions once considered inaccessible, the country has truly come a long way from its humble origins.

BY
Ahmed El Dahan
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Aviation Journalist
A seasoned writer, Ahmed El Dahan was trained in Journalism and Mass Communication in the American University in Cairo. He then moved on to refine his writing skills working in various publications covering such topics as tourism, art exhibitions, music along with being a food critic. Relocating to Paris in 2015, he has an ever growing curiosity for the aviation industry. Away from the page, Dahan is an active professional saxophonist.

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