Sunday, February 03, 2008

S'pore-KL budget flights take off but...

The long-protected Singapore-KL air route has finally been opened up, slightly.

Singapore and Malaysia newspapers highlighted the historic entry of budget airlines in the air sector between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on Feb 1. Three new players -- Malaysia's AirAsia, and Tiger Airways and Jetstar Asia of Singapore -- will operate a total of four flights a day. Most of the flights will still be dominated by the expensive Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines.

Sophie's World has long argued for the liberalisation of the route, which was dominated by the national carriers of Malaysia and Singapore for the past three decades. It just didn't make sense to shield the two national carriers from the new kids on the block since budget airlines came into play in 2003.

Passengers and commentators will continue to analyse the situation and applaud the move as another step towards open skies in Asean. Sophie's World fully endorses Asean's Open Sky pact by the end of this year to hasten economic and social integration of the region with over 500 million people -- more than one-third the population of China, which is the world's most populous country.

But an open sky pact alone will not nudge the region's disparate economies towards greater integration as long as many countries remain highly nationalistic.

In the case of closely-knit Malaysia and Singapore, the long-term solution is not more flights alone as many people still won't be able to travel freely. Why? This is because air travel is still relatively expensive due to the litany of taxes imposed, and the subsequent connection cost to the city.

For example, The Straits Times highlighted the family of 21 who collectively spent S$3,200 on the maiden budget flight from Singapore to KL. It's a lot cheaper than the S$8,800 they would have forked out on either Singapore Airlines or Malaysia Airlines for the same round-trip flight. At S$3,200, it works out to S$152 per person for a round-trip fare, including all the taxes.

The family could have chartered an entire van or bus for far less and used it to ferry them around in KL for one week. But bus was not an option for them as they said they had some toddlers who couldn't stomach the bus journey to KL. That's not the point here.

The point is at S$152 per person (some budget tickets were given away for free as part of the maiden flight promotions), it is still a high price to travel 320km from Singapore to KL. Budget airfare, inclusive of taxes and surcharges, is still at least 50 percent higher than what many luxury coaches charge between the two cities. In fact, ST said many people paid under S$200 each for a budget airline seat. This is more than double the return bus fare of S$92 charged by luxury coach Aeroline.

The long-term solution to facilitate the extremely high traffic volume between the two capitals is a high-speed bullet train service. It's an idea that was mooted by several Malaysian businessmen in the 1990s and revived recently by Francis Yeoh.

Even former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had pushed for the idea as a way to further integrate the two countries. As part of the fast train service between KL and Singapore, Dr Mahathir had proposed a rail tunnel under the narrow Straits of Johor, which separates Malaysia and Singapore.

The rail tunnel project was part of the transportation blueprint in the southern Malaysian city of Johor Baru that involved building a new overhead bridge to replace the old causeway, which connects the two countries.

Although Singapore had officially welcomed the rail tunnel idea, negotiation to build a new overhead bridge was almost stillborn from the beginning. Malaysia finally called off the bridge project two years ago as Singapore had made certain demands -- the right to use Malaysia's airspace and buy sand for its land reclamation -- that Malaysia could not fulfill.

Francis Yeoh appears to be still keen to push ahead with the bullet train project although the rail tunnel and bridge components have been derailed. He could build a new fast rail link to Singapore should Malaysia secure Singapore's blessing, or end the rail track in the city of JB.

The answers are still hazy.

What is clearer is that a fast train service could zip from Singapore to the heart of KL in just 90 minutes -- half the time needed to drive on Malaysia's North-South Expressway. The point-to-point travel will be even faster than air travel due to time needed for airport immigration clearance, baggage clearance and the 57-km road or rail connection between the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the capital.

Of course, demand will hinge on the eventual price of a train ticket. Sophie's World is hopeful that the price ticket for a fast train service, should it materialise, will be competitive compared to full-fledged airlines or even budget airlines.

But planners in Singapore and Malaysia must not ignore the ultimate bottleneck for road and rail travelers between the two countries -- the jointly-owned causeway.


zamanski said...

Good Article. But its really weird how Jetstar Asia, an airline which is an offshoot of Qantas' Jetstar Airways, got the go-ahead for this route. Looks like the Aussies are trying to get a foothold on this very lucrative route...

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