Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport is celebrating its 45th anniversary, at a time when it is under pressure like never before. Record numbers of foreign tourist arrivals are pushing the facility to breaking point as it is about to embark on an ambitious overhaul. The airport’s general manager, Heru Legowo, 55, spoke this week with Carla Albertí de la Rosa.
Q Ngurah Rai International Airport has just been named one of the world’s ugliest, by Travel and Leisure Magazine. What’s your reaction?
A It depends on the point of view: if you compare to other airports it might be ugly. We have been renovating, not building a completely new airport. I believe that this airport also has a little bit of charm, because of the people, but not the airport as such. We try to convince all the people working at this airport to do the best for this ugly airport to make up a nice one.
Q Obviously a major change is required, and a blueprint has been drawn up for expansion. What can we expect, and when will the work get underway and be completed?
A Our domestic terminal only has 15,000 m2 and our capacity is 1.5 million passengers, but we have already handled 5 million this year. That’s why we are going to demolish the domestic terminal and expand it to 120,000 m2 – that will be the new international terminal and the domestic terminal will be where the international terminal is now.
We will only have one security check instead of two in the new international terminal. The problem is that it will be complicated to operate the airport while it’s still being built. We want to build a functional airport. But many Balinese people want to build a traditional image on the shape of the building so that at a glance, when tourists arrive, they will feel like they are in Bali.
We are still discussing this and we will need to get approval from the governor of Bali. Then we will need the approval from the minister of transportation. I think it will be completed in approximately three years.
Q Even with an expansion, the airport’s size is still limited. So how do you aim to cope with millions more foreign tourist arrivals that the government hopes for? You yourself have said the figure will be around 25 million by 2025.
A This airport is only a small airport; we only have 285 hectares.
The airport can only handle up to 20 million passengers. More than that will be impossible. I’m trying to convince the local government to make better access to and from the airport.
We need infrastructure and more transport. We need roads, raised highways, wide enough to accommodate people going out and coming to the airport; otherwise it will be too crowded. There are already so many traffic jams.
The government say they will try but they have a constraint because Balinese people don’t want anything higher than a coconut tree because in their offerings no one can be above the coconut trees. Some already realise that we need more roads and transportation.
Heru Legowo: We need infrastructure and more transport.
Q Is it not more reasonable to shift the entire airport to a more expansive location, and one that is not as crowded, as has been suggested? Culture and Tourism Minister Jero Wacik has said he favours North Bali.
A Jero Wacik’s intention is to make a balance between north and south. But if he wants an airport in the north we will need at least 600 hectares and it’s not easy to find flat land up there. Also, many people want to stay in the south of Bali. The touristy areas are in the south. So if they want an airport in the north, they would need to provide infrastructure and transportation to the south.
There’s also an idea to build an airport on Nusa Penida and then they would build three highways: one to Gianyar, one to Karangasem and one to the south of the island. This idea is better, but it’s also difficult because they would need to build these highways.
Q Arriving at Bali’s airport is not a pleasant experience for many people. They can expect to wait in sweltering heat for hours before having their visas processed. Bali lawmakers are saying they are extremely concerned that this is creating a very negative image for Bali. What can be done to immediately fix it?
A That happens because of the people in immigration; there aren’t so many officers to handle people at peak hours. Sometimes there are more than 1,000 people coming at the same time. So I have convinced them to put more officers in place and to make the arrival lounge bigger, from 900m2 to 1500m2, so it will not be so crowded. This will be ready by next August.
The officers are not my responsibility but immigration’s. I can bring a horse to the lake but I cannot force the horse to drink the water. I don’t know why they are not doing it. But I try to communicate with them. I think by next month they will have 50 more officers and that would be enough to handle everyone.
Q Others arriving at the airport complain about officials extorting money from them. How can this be overcome?
A We have monthly meetings and try to convince them, to tell them not to do that. Not all custom officials or immigration officials are like that. The problem is that I can talk to them but not force them.
Q Why is there a taxi monopoly at the airport? Arriving passengers who want a taxi have no choice but to use one firm, which has set rates for different areas. Other taxi firms are allowed to drop off passengers, but not pick them up. Surely this is extremely uncompetitive, so why do you allow it?
A Because the airport taxis cannot work outside the airport. They can bring people to the airport and pick them up from the airport but they cannot work outside this. So the interest is reciprocal. For me it’s OK to do that but maybe for tourists it’s not, because they might want to have another choice.
Q Airports like Singapore’s Changi are frequently voted among the world’s best, because not only are they pleasantly laid out, but there’s an array of people-friendly services that passengers enjoy. Why is there nothing similar at Ngurah Rai?
A We can’t compare Ngurah Rai International Airport to Singapore’s Changi. Bali’s airport is one-sixth of Changi. We don’t have any space here, we’re very crowded and there are many things we cannot offer. But although our airport compares to Phuket airport and the airport in the Gold Coast in size, we handle twice as many visitors.
Q The airport is currently celebrating its 46th anniversary, which fell on February 20, and a book has been released chronicling its past, Ngurah Rai Airport Bali: Gateway to Paradise 1930-2010. It touches on the airport’s use as a Dutch military base. What surprises you most about its history?
A We only had one runway. We filled the seawater with rocks 1,000 meters long and 35 meters wide to make a longer runway. It was in 1960 and at that time that was very hard to do.
Q With the ASEAN open skies agreement now in full force, Bali’s airport can expect a lot more aviation traffic. How will you be able to cope with providing additional services, such as refuelling?
A Refuelling will be provided by Pertamina, the state oil company. More people coming means more prosperity. But we will have to improve our services, like having more parking stands for the aircraft, parking facilities for the cars, handling passengers faster so they don’t have to wait as long. This is blending facilities: it’s immigration, quarantine, customs and everyone else working together.
We will also have more buses between the airplanes and the terminals.
Q Is the one, sole airport really sufficient with such high traffic nowadays, and the projected massive rise?
A It’s enough to cope with up to 20 million people, but only if infrastructure are built. If there are more than 20 million people, then we will need another airport for sure.
Q In just four short years, Ngurah Rai will be a half century old. Will it be a drastically different place than it is today?
A It will change a lot when we expand the terminals. The domestic terminal will be where the international terminal is now, and will be 60,000 m2. And the new international terminal will be 120,000 m2. It will be very different to now.