Why were touts operating at KLIA and other airports?

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Touting was an ugly sight, but the authorities seemed unperturbed.

I am prompted to write after reading a recent report with the header “KLIA ‘teksi sapu’ predators continue to fleece unsuspecting victims with cheap rides that never be”.

Sadly, ever since Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) was officially opened on June 27, 1998, it had been plagued by touts for most of its 25 years of operations.

Initially, the glass walls allowed the public to view the goings-on inside the arrival hall from all three sides and there were exits on opposing sides designed for dispersing traffic. But this created a huge problem for visitors that have arranged for transport out of the airport.

Drivers assigned to pick them up were given only the flight number and name of passengers. They would wait outside the arrival hall and ask exiting passengers whether they are so and so or wave a placard showing the passenger’s name.

This method, although universally practised, is not foolproof. And if passengers were to use the exit on the other side, the chances of not meeting them are high. As it was often a sea of confusion outside the arrival hall, many drivers and passengers failed to meet each other.

In 2006, I was tasked by the president of a national travel association to investigate complaints that some people wearing lanyards with the association’s logo in their nametags were approaching passengers inside the arrival hall. So, I drove to KLIA to find out.

On that fateful day, I witnessed more than I had expected. I spotted a man wearing a jacket, lanyard, and name tag inside the arrival hall cooly approaching passengers to offer assistance. To unsuspecting visitors, he looked very much like an airport official.

I could see that he was targeting foreign tourists and at times the logo of the travel association could be seen on the name tag. Although the arrival hall was out of bounds to the public, he managed to enter the restricted area and carry on with his antics with impunity.

Next, I do not know whether to laugh or cry. It was also the very day that an elderly policeman and equally elderly policewoman were putting up posters on the walls and pillars inside the arrival hall with the words “Beware of touts”.

In later years, I often read reports that entire teams of police personnel stationed at KLIA were transferred out. Where illegal activities are rife, it is likely that the local police had a hand in it.

The latest indication came from the much-respected no-nonsense CID director Comm Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay who said that no more warnings will be issued to OCPDs who fail to deal with illegal gambling in their districts.

Over the years, the Road Transport Department carried out enforcement operations just outside KLIA such as by checking on taxis leaving the airport. Taxi services from KLIA were monopolised until city taxis were allowed to pick up passengers on May 15, 2013.

I drove premier and budget taxis from 2000 to 2010. When dropping off passengers at KLIA, I was often approached by touts about whether I wished to pick up their passengers and send them to the city, which I always declined and preferred to drive back empty.

Instead of waiting for illegal activities to occur and for enforcement officers to act, it would be better for the airport operator to nip touting in the bud. Except for Senai International Airport, all other airports in the country are operated by Malaysia Airport Holdings Berhad (MAHB).

As all airports are high-security areas, there are countless closed-circuit television cameras for monitoring and recording. But why is it that MAHB does not seem to be alarmed by the presence of touts and arriving passengers being harassed by them?

It was an ugly sight, but the authorities seemed unperturbed. The touts appeared confident like they were operating in their own backyard. Anyone that witnessed such despicable behaviour and could remain indifferent day after day is simply not fit to do the job.

But if touting is captured by cameras and the image is shown live on a giant screen for all to view, it would send touts scurrying like rats. Why is this not done? Are the tentacles of these touts so long that many could be on the take?

The most accurate litmus tests of our country can be conducted at KLIA, and touting is one of them. We either pass or fail, regardless of the accolades or claims we like to make.

The Homepage of MAHB’s website currently proclaims that “KLIA Moves Up To Be World’s Top 9 Airport In Q1 2021”. But what is not shown is “Skytrax’s World’s Top 100 Airports for 2023”. The terminal had dropped five spots to 67th place.

Touting will disappear and KLIA starts to climb up to being among the top airports in the world once MAHB confronts and addresses its problems, with many in plain sight and well-known to the public for over a quarter century.

The views expressed here are strictly those of YS Chan from Kuala Lumpur.