by Prithpal Singh

The recent controversy over Seletar Airport has placed this once picturesque airport built in the 1930s, under the limelight. More than highlighting its strengths and attractiveness, it has in fact served to highlight its weaknesses, vulnerabilities and limitations.

With a short runway of 1.8km, half that of Changi Airport and with no prospects of further runway extensions due to space limitations, it was never really meant to be more than a general aviation airport. Now Singapore authorities are trying to make what it is not and the strains are showing. The words “aviation hub” is being brandished around. It’s being touted as an airport for scheduled turboprop airline operations. And someone thought that just plonking an Instrument Landing System (ILS) would magically transform it into another mini Changi!

Today Seletar has been totally and successfully transformed into an Aviation Park with all manner of factories providing aviation products and services and companies which provide repair, maintenance and overhaul services for aircraft. It has been on the right track so far. Many in the industry have aptly described Seletar, no longer as an airport, but as a large factory site which just happens to have a runway in the middle!

So the decision to transform it into another “hub” for scheduled airlines and for more executive jets to use it as a base seemed odd. It appears not to have been properly though through for many reasons. Seletar is very close to heavily built up and populated areas. I am not aware of any environmental study done on the impact of noisy turboprops landing and taking off every half should it become an active airport for scheduled turbo prop operations.

With the Malaysian government insistence of a no overfly zone over Pasir Gudang, the ILS will likely have to be installed on the northerly facing (Runway 03) which means an approach to land over the city, Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio. Would this be acceptable to thousands living along the flight path? Executive jets are also facing problems as the short runway means many long range business jets cannot take off with full fuel and passengers, from Seletar. Many executive jets now have to either ferry to Changi Airport to refuel and board passengers there or they have to reduce the amount of fuel that may be carried, resulting in expensive and needless additional fuel stops which executive jet try to avoid. This therefore puts a severe limitation and makes Seletar less attractive even for executive jets.

When I started my executive jets business in Seletar in 2004, I realized after a number of years the imitations of Seletar if I wanted to expand my business. I could not buy land at Seletar to build a hangar and lease offers from JTC were not attractive.  The runway was too short for aircraft to take off fully loaded. Our planes were frequently diverted to land elsewhere in bad weather.

I was looking to expand to overcome these limitations. An opportunity arose at Senai International Airport to buy land and build my own hanger. I moved the business from Seletar to Senai International Airport in 2010. It has been one of the best decisions we made.

If indeed Singapore and Malaysia are looking for a long term win win solution to the current impasse, why not work together with Malaysia and Senai Airport to develop and reposition Senai as Spore 3rd airport, the way Gatwick is in the UK, with Changi being the Heathrow. If the Malaysian government and Senai Airport are amenable to this, than there is a high likelihood that many of the present aviation issues can have a permanent resolution.

Senai is Malaysia’s only privately managed airport. It’s just over an hour’s drive from Spore. It’s closer than KLIA is to Kuala Lumpur. It’s well managed and they have been recognized by being rewarded with a management contract for yet another airport in Malaysia. It has a 3.4km long runway with an ILS. Has over 40,000 aircraft movements a year and handles over 3 million passengers and growing. Plus lots of space for expansion.

I have very fond and good memories of Seletar as an aviator and a business man. But the present realities requires a new approach. Singapore faces space constraints and limitations at various levels. The present economic and political realities means we should work more closely with our neighbors. Many of the aviation issues are more likely to be resolved if all parties have vested and mutual interests in each other’s success.

Seletar Airport is unlikely to become what we hope it will be. It’s best to work with Malaysia and develop Senai Airport and bring it into Singapore’s aviation hinterland, if they are willing. The synergies and benefits of such an arrangement for all are tremendous and goes beyond just aviation. Not working more closely with our neighbours on the aviation issues will continue to be prickly and will only serve to stunt our own growth.

Prithpal Singh is a pilot and owner of an executive jets business.

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