RURAL Air Services (RAS), as the name denotes, provides air connectivity to rural areas in Sarawak and Sabah which are not easily accessible over land.
Air travel is essential, given that topographically, large parts of the two Borneo states are under the cover of dense jungles where native tribes still live, and for them, getting to the nearest town on foot can take days, depending on how many mountains, hills and rivers they have to pass through.
Rural Air Service is a Federal government subsidy programme aimed at providing accessibility for rural folks, and currently operated by MASwings, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines, under a RAS agreement with the Federal government. The fares are capped by the Ministry of Transport (MoT) and the routes are typically loss-making and commercially unfeasible.
According to Malaysian Aviation Commission (MAVCOM) chief operating officer Azmir Zain, RAS is a “public service obligation in aviation” for the benefit of the people, and usually operates at a loss.
The Commission acts as an advisor to MoT. In 2016-7, it undertook a study to improve the RAS agreement structure and make recommendations.
The study was shared with the MoT in 2017 and the ministry recently made a recommendation to the cabinet which approved it. The agreement was signed by MASwings and the federal government on Jan 4 this year.
“Our recommencement is to differ from the old RAS. The intention is to facilitate connectivity for rural Sarawak and Sabah to ensure rural folks can access education, medical and govt services – in other words, to see that they don’t miss out,” Azmir Zain said.
He added that MAVCOM looked at the RAS structure in 2016 and found that the operation routes included urban sectors such as Kuching-Miri, Kuching-Bintulu and Kuching-Sibu.
He pointed out that these should not have been included as there were commercial carriers already serving them.
“As RAS is subsidised by the federal government, the urban-to-urban routes under the programme are misaligned with rural connectivity and have been re-allocated. Effective January this year, the following urban routes — Kuching-Sibu, Kuching-Bintulu, Kuching-Miri, Kota Kinabalu-Sibu and Kota Kinabalu-Bintulu — are no longer under RAS.
“With the exit of MASwings from theses routes, one good outcome is making them more attractive to commercial airlines – for instance Malindo which has been operating the Kota Kinabalu-Tawau route from December last year.”
Another outcome, he noted, was the introduction of new locations, not served previously by RAS, or where there had been no air connectivity, such as Belaga, Long Silat and Kapit-Bukit Mabong.
“Now we’re looking into putting in place the necessary infrastructure at these locations to facilitate RAS operations,” he added.
More routes approved
Azmir Zain revealed the federal government had also approved additional routes such as Kuching-Limbang (direct flight), three times a week, Bario-Long Lellang and Bario-Long Seridan.
“Also in the pipeline are specific cargo services out of Miri, serving areas in North-East Sarawak such as Ba Kelalan, Bario, Long Lellang, Long Seridan, Long Akah and Long Banga. There will be a weekly flight per route. The federal govt has given its approval and we’re now working towards implementation.
“This is in the spirit of re-allocating government subsidies – from operating urban-to-urban routes to providing rural connectivity. This is the major change in the RAS network.”
On how the change of routes will affect RAS users, he said for Jan-Oct 2018, 1,093 million people used the service in Sarawak and Sabah — with 535,000 being Sarawakians.
“Breaking down the Sarawak figure, 333,000 were for urban-to-urban routes, 184,000 for urban-to-rural routes and 18,000 for rural-to-rural routes. This means during the said period, 62 per cent of RAS users opted for urban-to-urban routes.
“Regarding the number of seats, urban-to-urban routes took up 59.5 per cent, but after dropping three of them, the number is expected to dip to 38 per cent this year. As for urban-to-rural routes, the number of seats accounted for 36.7 per cent over 10 months last year. We hope to increase it to 57.4 per cent in 2019.”
Asccording to him, the second major change is the continuation of MASWings operations for the next six years but how the regional airline is to be compensated will be different.
Previously, the compensation was based on the amount of losses due to low volume but relatively high operating costs — which is why commercial airlines do not take these routes.
Now, MASwings needs to meet certain key consumer-oriented performance index (KPI) as part of the calculation for compensation such as “on time” services, cancellation of service rates and feedback from users/passengers.
“The idea is to motivate MASwings to be always on time and minimise cancellation of service rates as in doing so, RAS operations will be more convenient for passengers.
“Another thing we’re going to do that will seep into the MASwings compensation is conducting an annual consumer survey to measure the level of satisfaction for MASwings’ performance — like comfort of the aircraft and convenience of purchasing tickets, among others,” Azmir Zain said.
He pointed out that previously, there was less focus on understanding the placing of resources to find out how RAS was performing and meeting the objective of rural connectivity and so, a plan is now in place to frequently engage stakeholders in Sarawak and Sabah.
MAVCOM was formally established on March 1, 2016 under the Malaysian Aviation Commission Act 2015 to regulate economic and commercial matters related to civil aviation in Malaysia.
The Commission’s goal is also to promote a commercially viable, consumer-oriented and resilient civil aviation industry that supports the nation’s economic growth.
MAVCOM’s role differs from those of the Ministry of Transport (MoT) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM).
MoT is responsible for industry policy-making and government-to-government discussions, which include spearheading bilateral or multilateral negotiations on air traffic rights while CAAM regulates technical and safety matters for Malaysia’s civil aviation industry.
“MAVCOM plays the role of an economic regulator, looking after the entire civil aviation industry and consumers. We also act as an independent adviser to MoT on economic matters pertaining to civil aviation.
“Our employees comprise dedicated professionals from the industry, including economists and analysts. We have a strong team in place, allowing the Commission to perform its role efficiently,” Azmir Zain said.
Rural Air Services (RAS)
The Ministry of Transport recently announced it had inked an agreement with MASwings to operate 40 RAS routes in Sarawak and Sabah (for 2019-2024) under a new Public Service Obligation (PSO) agreement. The 40 routes cover urban-to-urban, urban-to-rural and rural-to-rural pairs (including cargo).
RAS is provided via short take-off and landing airports (STOLports) which normally has a short runway.
In Sarawak, STOLports are used in Ba Kelalan, Bario, Lawas, Long Akah, Long Banga, Long Lellang, Long Seridan, Marudi, Mukah and Tanjung Manis while in Sabah, the only STOLport is in Kudat.
The Commission introduced the Malaysian Aviation Consumer Protection Code (MACPC) in July 2016 in line with the Commission’s objective to protect consumer rights.
The Code was a result of extensive engagement with relevant stakeholders and adopted from international guidelines such as the Montreal Convention 1999 and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)’s Core Principles on Consumer Protection.
MACPC is the first Consumer Protection Code in Malaysia’s aviation industry. The Commission is now developing a similar consumer protection code tailor-made for RAS passengers.