SEPANG, Malaysia -- Malaysia's new airport for budget carriers opened May 2 in Kuala Lumpur without its main customer, AirAsia. The airport was built to handle three times more passengers than the previous budget airline hub, and envisaged as an "airport city," with plenty of facilities.
The larger space and better amenities may be good for passengers, but do budget carriers such as AirAsia need them?
Malaysia-based Malindo Air Flight OD1027 from Kota Kinabalu, east Malaysia, landed May 2 on schedule at a little past midnight. Its 113 passengers were visibly surprised by the traditional dances, music and glare of camera lights that welcomed them.
They were the airport's first customers. The construction of the airport, known as KLIA2, was supposed to finish two years ago, but was prolonged because of amended work orders. It is adjacent to Kuala Lumpur International Airport and 20 minutes away from the capital's first budget terminal, which is eight years old.
"We've proved everything was on schedule," a relieved Deputy Transport Minister Aziz Kaprawi, at the arrival gate to welcome the passengers, told reporters. "We are proud of KLIA2 as a national icon."
Malaysia has reasons to be pleased. KLIA2 is the first airport with a third runway in Southeast Asia, although neighboring Singapore is also building one. The terminal has a floor area of 257,000 sq. meters, roughly the size of 36 soccer fields, making it the world's largest purpose-built budget terminal.
The terminal was conceived as an "airport-within-a-mall." Roughly one third of its floor area is dedicated to retail. Both local and foreign brands are expected to occupy the 209 retail spaces, and a supermarket will operate in the airport. The terminal is within a planned city called KLIA Aeropolis, a multibillion dollar development due for completion in the next five to 10 years
But the large, 24-hour terminal was empty on its first day of operation. Many retail outlets were yet to open. And Asia's largest budget carrier, AirAsia, was also notable in its absence.
AirAsia said once it has moved its head office, by the middle of May, it will begin operations at KLIA2, becoming the terminal's main tenant. The company has announced that this year it will carry about half of the terminal's annual capacity of 45 million passengers. The budget airline had initially refused to budge from its current location at the old low-cost terminal, citing safety concerns at the new location and unresolved commercial issues with the airport's operator. The government stepped in and got inspection approval from the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Still, analysts expect glitches ahead: The airport undertook only two months of testing for operational readiness and airport transfer, instead of the usual six months. "Without a doubt, there will surely be normal teething problems and hiccups," Jazlan Mohamed, a ruling party lawmaker told local media.
Lots of lure
The airport is equipped with aerobridges, whereas passengers had to board planes via stairs at the old budget hub.
But using aerobridges may mean longer turnaround times, which reduce takeoff volume. Budget airlines such as AirAsia, which operate mainly short-haul flights, have turnaround times of about 25 minutes because they use passenger stairs.
The main terminal building, where check-in and customs counters are located, is connected by a 300m sky bridge to satellite buildings for international flights. Traversing the distance will be taxing for passengers with weak legs, even if there are automatic walkways on the bridge.
Budget airlines continue to be the choice for many in the Asia Pacific region. There are currently about 60 carriers in the region, according to Australian research body Center for Aviation. Budget airlines accounted for more than 50% of intra-Southeast Asian air traffic in 2013.
"I can save at least half," said Aaron Trajano, 30-year-old Filipino IT engineer based in Melbourne. He was one of the first users of KLIA2, in transit before heading home to Manila for a two week break. Trajano flew to Kuala Lumpur before continuing his journey home by the Philippines' Cebu Pacific Air, one of the five carriers using the terminal. He will return to Australia using the same route. The return trip will cost him $500. Low prices and the spacious ambiance of KLIA2 will continue to lure travelers like him.