The business of Airport Coach was set up in 1998 with a clear objective of providing quality transportation services. Initially offering factory buses, today’s scope has expanded, with a focus on services connected to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). In addition, shuttling factory workers provided the company with a boost when Samsung opened in Nilai. When thinking about bus services connected to an airport, one would typically think of people on their way to a faraway place. However, Airport Coach also services a route between the airport and Nilai, where a large population of workforce of KLIA live.
“These are very differentiated services. Stage buses have more seats, but the fares are regulated. Where we charge just RM 1 or RM 2 for the workforce, our express buses are more luxurious, the chassis have higher specs. The trip might also take one hour, but in the case of the express bus we charge at RM 10,” explained Rajkumar Batumalai, Director of Airport Coach. Reliability is a huge issue as the stage bus service are regulated by the government and tardiness will be penalised.
The Pandemic hit the industry hard. However, Airport Coach has been in a somewhat unique position. With the airport still operating and planes still flying, although extremely limited, there was still a need for transportation of the workforce. Contracts the company signed with the government must be fulfilled and people still need to go to work. “That said, we obviously suffered as well. We had to completely re-structure the business.” As the economy is opening up, Raj is bringing back his drivers, who have been idling as they were not laid off; it was anticipated that sooner or later the drivers would be needed again, and it was a more practical way to keep them on board. For instance, the long-distance routes are staffed with three drivers per bus, hence a sufficient headcount of drivers must be maintained.
Being adventurous is in the DNA of the company. “We like to try new things, both in terms of the routes and the assets we deploy,” he added. Four years ago, Raj started to trial Volvo buses. Having tried other makes, Raj pointed out that the after sales support is extremely important. With the possibilities offered by opting for the Swedes, the company now has 11 Volvo buses, which are serving cross border routes all the way to Thailand. Stressing the importance of having a good support framework, Raj points out that these buses run up to 1,000 kilometres per day. In case of a breakdown, Volvo offers peace of mind as the maintenance agreements in place cover the vehicles beyond their home country. Being convinced, Volvo buses are now also used on stage bus routes that the company covers.
While reliability is the focus, the support provided by the manufacturer is extremely important. “Naturally, there have been a few small issues, which were settled very quickly by the breakdown service teams.” Raj recounts that nowadays, the challenges an operator faces are typically related to electronics. When there are any questions, the service technicians from Volvo will have it sorted within minutes. And he stressed again that having access to such support is crucial, which not every OEM can offer the same level of support. “We have also learned how to interpret the data and can react to any signals accordingly.” Interestingly, some old-timer drivers still prefer manual gearboxes as it gives them the feeling of being more in control of the vehicle.
Each of the long-distance buses is under the responsibility of an experienced bus captain. It is the bus captain that is responsible for the bus as a unit, supervising younger drivers, and ensuring that the maintenance schedule is kept. It is this very captain that would be taking the vehicle for servicing. Should there be any questions regarding the operations of the vehicle, it is also the captain that would meet with Volvo’s technicians to learn about how to handle different circumstances. Long distance buses will be in operation for about three years before they are cycled into the bus population serving the airport routes. Following a time serving these routes, they are then moved to the fleet of factory buses before eventually being sold off. Raj explained that this is done to minimise breakdown risks and to minimise impacts in case something does happen with the bus while on duty. The expectation is that a Volvo bus would also catch a higher price on the second-hand market.
Highlighting the advantages of a long-distance bus, Raj highlights how a bus can be a smarter alternative to a flight. Going to Hat Yai for instance would require a trip to KLIA, then the flight itself and transportation from the hotel to town. With Airport Coach, travellers can enjoy the convenience of getting straight to their destination while the bus itself is a cosy cocoon that allows the travellers to sleep. “You get a good rest and when you arrive, you are literally at the doorstep of your destination. Taking the bus saves you a lot of hassle with the changes in the modes of transportation needed when you fly.” To further enhance comfort, Airport Coach’s plan is to remove another row of seats and give passengers even more comfort. Typically, buses on such routes would feature ten rows, whereas his buses already have nine and soon only eight.
With the opening of the economy and the foreseen recovery of international travel, Raj expects that the demand for the various routes will increase differently. Trips to the airport will see slow increase in demand whereas the routes to Thailand can be expected to see demand shooting up rapidly. With the mix of products offered, optimising the fleet’s usage is a challenge. To further enhance business performance and to react to the changes in demand, Airport Coach has invested in a command centre where the buses are being monitored for speeding and issues like fuel theft. To curb theft, incentives are offered, and this practice has paid dividends as many of the bus captains have been with the company for a long time. Hopeful for expansion of the business, a new coach is on order, but delivery has been delayed due to the movement restrictions. “We are confident that we can rebound and start from a strong foundation, as we are slowly getting back to what we used to perceive as being a normal situation,” Raj concluded.
Thanks to Asian Buses for the collaboration in developing this article