KL International Airport's new budget passenger terminal is sinking, with cracks appearing in the taxiway and water forming pools that planes must drive through.

The defects could cause flight delays, increase wear and tear on planes and pose potential safety risks, according to AirAsia Bhd, the new terminal's biggest user.

Though take-offs and landings aren't affected, the carrier has asked Malaysian airport authorities to fix the problems before passengers get hurt, chief executive officer Aireen Omar said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.

"The airport is still sinking," Aireen ( photo ) said.

The operator, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd, "has done some partial resurfacing, but what the airport actually needs is a permanent solution," Aireen said.

Complaints about the new terminal cap a bad run for Malaysia's aviation industry, after two deadly accidents for the national carrier - the unsolved disappearance of Flight MH370 in March 2014 and the shooting down of another plane over Ukraine last July.

Construction expenses for KLIA2, as the new budget airline terminal is known, ballooned from an initial estimate of about RM1.7 billion (US$446 million) to RM4 billion.

"Since MH370, a lot of shortcomings have been found in Malaysia's aviation infrastructure", said Shukor Yusof, founder of Singapore-based consultancy Endau Analytics. "The authorities haven't done enough to address these shortcomings, not enough to put them on par with the First World."


The Transport Ministry has set up an independent audit committee, which will submit a report on ponding issues "in due course," the ministry told Bloomberg .

Malaysia Airports, which has used its own funds to rectify the situation, "will be responsible for the findings and proposed solutions," the ministry said in an email.

AirAsia initially refused to move in when KLIA2 opened in May 2014, citing concerns over flight operations and security. The carrier gave in after the government said it would stop immigration and customs services at the old budget terminal.

The AirAsia group of airlines flew 15.2 million passengers through KLIA2 in its first year of operation, accounting for 87 percent of the terminal's traffic, according to Malaysia Airports data. Tiger Airways Holdings Ltd, Cebu Air Inc and Malindo Air declined to comment on their experience at the new terminal. An official from Lion Mentari Airlines PT didn't respond to requests for feedback.

Waterlogged tarmac

"If you go to the airport you can see ponding with your very own eyes," said Mohshin Aziz, an analyst at Malayan Banking Bhd in Kuala Lumpur. Still, he noted, "it's more of an irritation rather than a safety hazard."

Last year, local media photographed Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai and airport officials walking through the terminal's waterlogged tarmac during an inspection.

Construction of KLIA2 started in 2009 after the growth of low-cost travel, particularly by Malaysia-based AirAsia, pushed passenger traffic beyond the existing budget terminal’s capacity.

At 257,000 square metres, KLIA2 can handle 45 million passengers, with the potential to expand.

Most full-service carriers, including Malaysia Airlines, use the main KLIA terminal, about 50km from Kuala Lumpur, which began operations in 1998  after the government relocated the capital’s main airport from suburban Subang.

Malaysia Airports said the depressions and ponding at KLIA2 were caused by differential soil settlement in the apron and taxiway, where some of the structure is built on piling and some stands on normal ground.

'Stakeholders are updated weekly'

The settling "has been anticipated from the start of construction," Malaysia Airports said in an e-mailed response to questions. Stakeholders such as AirAsia are updated weekly on the progress of the maintenance and are "constantly engaged on operational issues".

The airport is addressing the issue by patching and resurfacing problem areas and injecting polyurethane under the ground. A concrete slab to be completed by next April will provide a more permanent solution, Malaysia Airports said.

KLIA2 isn't the only Asian airfield to face difficulties getting off the ground.

Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, which opened in 2006 atop a reclaimed swamp, suffered from cracks at taxiways and runways and faulty baggage-scanning machines. Airports of Thailand Pcl was forced to close some taxiways for repair and reopen the old airport to alleviate congestion.

The company's president quit amid probes of the construction flaws, citing health reasons.

In Japan, the government had to reinforce landfill under Osaka's Kansai International Airport after it was found to be sinking. Opened in 1994, the facility took almost eight years and 1.43 trillion yen (US$12 billion) to build on a manmade island.

"It's about time aggressive steps are taken to improve standards in Asia," said Mark D Martin, chief executive officer of Dubai-based aviation consulting firm Martin Consulting. It's bad for the region "that we have to see such incidents and events that negatively affect the safe operation of an aircraft or airport."

- Bloomberg

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