The RM250 million allocation to expand the Penang International Airport, part of the RM60 billion fiscal stimulus package announced on Tuesday, will serve as a shot in the arm for the island-state during these trying times.
The state's economy, anchored on technology and tourism, has received a beating of late via numerous announcements of layoffs by multinational companies operating in its manufacturing sector.
And just as Penang began to train its focus on the tourism sector to insulate the blow from the job cuts by technology giants, national turboprop operator Firefly dropped a bombshell that it is temporarily suspending several flights operating out of the Penang airport.
Flyfirefly Sdn Bhd managing director Eddy Leong said the move is part of the company's network rationalisation, in view of the current economic times.
He gave his assurance that the airline is committed, in the long run, to connect Penang to a region of 70 million people (covering Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Southern Thailand and Singapore) and to provide feeder services to all airlines operating medium- and long-haul flights from and into Penang.
The expansion of the Penang International Airport is also a component of the Northern Corridor Economic Region (NCER) blueprint, launched two years ago.
The proposed expansion is to enable the airport in Bayan Lepas to become the premier air cargo hub within the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle, supporting industrial parks and creating premium overseas markets for perishable high-value pro-ducts.
According to the blueprint, the planned expansion of the airport's facilities will include developing new passenger and cargo terminals and the addition of a new runway to cater for increased traffic.
"We are very happy with this announcement since it helps us with efforts to transform Penang into a logistics hub," Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA) senior vice-president for manufacturing and industry Chris Tan said.
He said the NCIA and Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB) were the two agencies which have been rooting for the Penang airport expansion project, since it complements MAHB's masterplan for Penang.
Once the project is completed, Penang will not only be able to boast of superior airport infrastructure to transport its high-technology exports, but also perishable food like high-value seafood items and agriculture products from the northern states.
In expanding air links to bring in more international visitors into the NCER, the airport expansion can also accommodate the needs of low-cost carriers.
"We hope the expansion plan will include provisions where the existing airport can double up as a terminal for low-cost carriers, since low-cost airlines tend to prosper during economically-hard times," FMM northern branch chairman Datuk O.K Lee said.
"Firefly hopes the Penang airport will be modified to better suit the operations of turbo-prop aircraft," said Leong, "and we believe that keeping airport operators independent of airlines is the correct way forward."
Apart from Firefly, other carriers using the Penang airport include MAS, AirAsia, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways International, Lion Air, Singapore Airlines, China Southern Airlines, China Airlines, Kartika Airlines and Sriwijaya Air.
The Penang International Airport was expanded in 2001 to accommodate an annual capacity of five million passengers.
In reality, the airport can accommodate only slightly more than three million passengers a year because space meant for transit passengers has been leased to duty-free shops.
The state can also thank Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak for announcing the 50 per cent rebate on landing charges (for two years effective April 1) to all airlines that operate from Malaysia, since this incentive can now be dangled in welcoming more international arrivals into the NCER.