The latest incarnation of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport
(Lapangan Terbang Antarabangsa Kuala Lumpur
in the original),
universally referred to as "KLIA
" by abbreviation-crazy Malaysia
is yet another of Dr. M
's grandiose prestige
Kuala Lumpur's first airport at Sungai Besi, a grassed-over former
tin tailing mine, received its first international flight in 1933.
While the Sungai Besi airstrip remains there to this day (albeit not
in active use of any kind as far I know), in the 1960s it was
supplanted by the first official Kuala Lumpur International Airport
at Subang (SZB), also known
as Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah International Airport,
some 20 kilometers to the southwest of the city.
In the 1980s, a second terminal at Subang was opened and the first
terminal thoroughly renovated.
But in 1993 came two perplexing developments. First, Terminal 3 at
Subang was opened; second, a new wholly government-owned company
was formed to construct an entirely new airport at Sepang
some 70 kilometers to the south of Kuala Lumpur. The new airport
was to feature two runways on a land area of 10,000 hectares,
making it (in size) the largest aiport in the world. It would have a
capacity of up to 25 million passengers per year, upgradeable to
100 million/year in the future -- more than Heathrow!
As the Subang airport was still running at less
than full capacity with around 14 million passengers/year,
there was clearly no pressing need for such
immense expansion, but Dr. M had another target in mind: Singapore's
Changi airport, the central transportation hub of South-East Asia
and a lucrative money-spinner. Could Kuala Lumpur wrest away the
The airport was duly built at the staggering cost of 12 billion ringgit
(around $3 billion) and opened on June 27, 1998 -- at the
depth of the Asian economic crisis. Airlines like British Airways,
ANA, Qantas and Lufthansa all started flights to the airport,
but stopped them after a year or two due to poor profitability.
As of 2002, usage is still more or less flat at around 15 million
passengers/year, despite increasingly desperate incentives
like waving all landing fees for 5 years for new carriers.
The transportation ministry has also forced national operator
Malaysian Airlines to move all its domestic flights to
KLIA, which will pump up traffic volume by around two million
per year but also
give a significant competitive edge to private competitor Air Asia,
which will for time being continue to operate from the more
convenient Subang -- although it too
may be has been forced to move.
All that said, while KLIA may be a financial white elephant, it's
quite a nice place for the traveller and you will find pictures of
the thing plastered in unlikely places like postcards, stamps and
even banknotes. One of the airport's (mildly bizarre) mottoes is
"airport in the jungle, jungle in the airport", which in
practice means that in the international satellite building there
is a giant arboretum in the center and that the unused bits of those
10,000 hectares are planted with palm trees. The rest of the
construction is ultra-modern but unremarkable, all curving steel,
immensely high ceilings and shades of gray. Restaurants and shops
abound, signage is more than sufficient and -- thanks to running at
half capacity but being staffed full -- there are absolutely no queues
anywhere (with the possible/inevitable exception of immigration right after a plane lands).
Domestic and Singapore flights leave from the main terminal building,
while international flights leave from the satellite building, which
is connected to the main terminal by a people-mover.
For the first few years of operation access was only via bus or taxi,
the trip to the city taking an hour at best, but on April 14, 2002
the KLIA Ekspres high-speed train service was opened.
Built by Siemens, the trains leave every 15 minutes and ferry
passengers from the airport to KL Sentral in only 28 minutes at a
top speed of 160 km/h. You can even check in your luggage from,
and soon also to, the KL City Air Terminal (XKL) two
hours before departure. Tickets are fairly pricy though at RM 35
one-way or RM 65 return; while these aren't too bad compared to
express trains in other nations, for many
Malaysians these are prohibitely expensive, especially when
considering that Air Asia's discounted flights can go for
as low as RM 60 one-way!
The KLIA Transit service, which runs along the same route but
takes 10 minutes longer and stops at Malaysia's new administrative center
Putrajaya/Cyberjaya and two other stations along the
"Multimedia Super Corridor", was
opened on June 19, 2002.