In just a matter of months, our life has changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the way we live. New terms have emerge - social distancing, new normal. Immediately after my previous travel to London (via Brunei) earlier this year, country by country began to impose travel restrictions. Malaysia started to impose near total lockdown by early March and it lasted until May when reports of new cases eased.
During that harsh but necessary three month lockdown, domestic air travel were literally halted, except essential freight and cargo flights (including online orders). I managed to sneak (by driving to BKI airport) to have a look from inside my car. The terminal was emptied of any passenger activity. Planes were parked with the engines covered.
The impact on airlines are obvious. With no demand for air travel, passenger planes literally stuck to the ground. Workers are either furloughed or outright retrenched. In Malaysia, as of September 2020, the situation is very dire. Malaysia Airlines has indicated that it might no longer sustain operations if its sole shareholder (the Government of Malaysia, through its sovereign wealth fund called Khazanah) decided to end funding. The government itself indicated that it will not bailout the airline, and it is up to Khazanah to do what is deemed necessary.
Due to work commitments, I travel frequently to Sandakan, a major city on the northeastern coast of Borneo. Even before COVID-19, I travelled back and forth by air to that city for on average of 2-3 times per month. Air travel is a viable option in Malaysian Borneo as the roads here are not as good as in Peninsular Malaysia. By car, it takes about 7 hours to reach Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu (covering the distance of approximately 360km). A similar journey, say from Kuala Lumpur to Penang (in Peninsular Malaysia) only takes half of that. Hence, why air travel is still a viable option here. Travelling by air only takes about 30 minutes over a straight line distance of roughly 200km. An entire door-to-door travelling time is about 3-4 hours, which is still competitive compared to driving.
My journey to Sandakan began 10 minutes away from my house. I reached the airport at about 6.30AM. It was cloudy and raining hard that morning. Since I did online check-in hours before, and there is no checked-in luggage with me, I proceeded directly to security check. The security check went smoothly and with no long queues.
As I walked through the waiting lounge to the gate area, the atmosphere was hive with activity and it seemed that everything went normal again. Except that there were no international flights and everyone wore face masks. As of September 2020, international flights are still banned from entering Sabah.
^^^Rainy morning at BKI.
The load factor in this flight were measly, total passengers only numbered dozens. I was the only passenger sitting way at the rear of the cabin. Everyone else either opted or assigned to their seats towards the front of the cabin. Everyone is required to wear face masks at all times.
^^^Every passenger was given a pack of complimentary personal hygiene kit. It contains a disposable face mask, and a hand sanitizer wipes.
^^^Since the load in this flight was light, the boarding process was completed quite fast. Before the usual safety video was shown, a special video was shown depicting Malaysia Airlines' commitment in ensuring passenger's health and well-being against COVID-19.
^^^Pushed back with view of Malaysia Airlines BKI hangar and air freight centre.
^^^Take-off with view of almost empty Terminal 2. This terminal was used to be the main base of AirAsia in BKI. Due to airport management pressure, the airline was forced to relocate to Terminal 1 in 2015. Terminal 2 was then proposed to be converted into a major cargo terminal. But, until today the terminal remains largely unoccupied except as parking areas for small general aviation aircrafts, helicopters shuttling oil rig workers offshore at South China Sea, daily cargo flights and VIP flights (as Terminal 2 has a designated section for receiving VIPs).
Sandakan is located due east from Kota Kinabalu, but we initially turned west after departure from runway 02, and then continuously turned towards east as we climbed higher and overflew the airport, presumably to ensure we gained enough altitude before crossing the Crocker mountain range (including Mount Kinabalu vicinity) that separates western and eastern Sabah.
^^^We overflew BKI just before we entered the rain clouds.
Since this was a very short flight, no full meal is served, only light snacks (detail further below). In just over 15 minutes, we descended towards Sandakan airport, just 200km away. It was very cloudy for the first 15 minutes or so of the journey. On a clear day, passengers seated on the portside of the aircraft can actually see Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Borneo. But, that day all I saw was just white clouds.
^^^On this very short flight, we were served with salted peanuts and packet of orange juice. To minimise contact, instead of giving these to passengers by hand, the cabin crew would just put these in the tray, lend the tray to passengers and to pick these snacks themselves.
^^^Almost midway before reaching Sandakan.
^^^15 minutes before landing, the weather suddenly turned brighter.
^^^Over the Sulu Sea.
^^^The weather in Sandakan was a nice welcome change.
^^^Just before touching down. To the right (below the wing) is the city of Sandakan where the city centre itself is located behind the hilly outcrop. To the left is a large island called Pulau Berhala, famous for its steep cliffs and important landmark (or marker) for shipping navigation in and out of Sandakan bay.
^^^Taxiing to the gate on a clear sunny day.
^^^While waiting to disembark, I took the chance to peek and shot this.
^^^There are only two aerobridges at Sandakan airport. It is a small domestic airport. Currently, the runway is being lengthened to enable heavier aircraft to land (and thus attracts more international flights to the city).
^^^Disembarkation process was very quick owing to very few passengers.
^^^Sandakan airport itself underwent extensive upgrading and renovation few years ago.
Within few minutes walk, I was already out of the airport and wait for my ride.
That's it for my latest trip report. Keep safe and healthy always!
As of the day this trip report is published, the situation in Malaysia has turned for the worst. Another wave of COVID-19 infections has affected air travel once more. I managed to get back to Kota Kinabalu from Sandakan by air one day before a second lockdown was imposed as the number of cases keep increasing. The lockdown is expected to last until 20th October, but there is a possibility of further extension if situation remains risky. Domestic travel to Sabah is already declining again, just as tourism and aviation industry players were optimistic of regaining some lost grounds. Sabah is among the highly sought after domestic air travel market (as the only viable way to reach here is by plane). And with the latest travel restriction to this part of Malaysia, it will certainly affect airlines here.
As for Malaysia Airlines, the situation at the airline is critical. I personally do not think the government is pursuing another bailout. Past bailouts do not lift the airline any higher. I'm afraid COVID-19 pandemic might be the breaking point of the airline as its financial position is already weaker compared with its immediate regional peers (although literally every airline is facing difficult time) even before the pandemic hits.
Malaysia Airlines has put great efforts in encouraging passengers to confidently fly again. The cabin is quite clean and spotless. Cabin crews wore protective masks and every passenger was given personal hygiene pack. Since it is only a short haul flight of 30-45 minutes, I cannot complain about the service provided. The flow from check-in, to security check to boarding was quick, owing to less passengers (good for me, but bad for airline, unfortunately). In Sandakan airport, the small size of the terminal ensures that arrival process went fast. Overall, this is a no-nonsense short-haul flight with extra precaution on hygiene.