Tawau Airport

Tawau Airport (Malay: Lapangan Terbang Tawau) (IATA: TWU, ICAO: WBKW) is an airport located 15 nautical miles (28 km; 17 mi) north east[2] of Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia. It is one of two airports in Sabah with immigration counters for international flights, the other being Kota Kinabalu International Airport. Tawau Airport serves the districts of Tawau, Kunak and Semporna and is the nearest airport to the diving islands of Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai, all of which are located in the latter district.

Tawau Airport

Lapangan Terbang Tawau
The main terminal of Tawau Airport as seen from the tarmac.
Airport typePublic
OwnerGovernment of Malaysia
OperatorMalaysia Airports Holdings Berhad
ServesTawau Division
LocationTawau, Sabah, Malaysia
Time zoneMST (UTC+08:00)
Elevation AMSL57 ft / 17 m
Coordinates04°18′48″N 118°07′19″E
Location in Sabah state
Location in East Malaysia
Location in Borneo
Location in Malaysia
Location in Southeast Asia
Direction Length Surface
m ft
06/24 2,685 8,809 Asphalt
Statistics (2020)
Passenger572,365 ( 68.8%)
Airfreight (tonnes)5,071 ( 30.3%)
Aircraft movements7,022 ( 55.8%)
Sources: official web site[1][2]

Old airport

In 1951, the government of British North Borneo approved the plan to construct an aerodrome in Tawau.[3]

The Tawau Airstrip was opened in 1953, located in Jalan Utara (Malay for 'Northern Road'), about 2 mi (3.2 km) outside the town centre. The first flight was commenced on 24 September 1953, with twice weekly flights from Sandakan by Sabah Airways Limited operated by a de Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft. In 1954, the route was added by an intermediate stop in Lahad Datu following the completion of the Lahad Datu airstrip.[4]

By the end of the decade, the airport was primarily served by Borneo Airways via a Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneer aircraft, linking the town to Lahad Datu, Sandakan and Jesselton.[5] Increasing air travel demand by the beginning of 1960s witnessed an extension of the runway, from 2,400 feet of coral to 4,500 feet of gravel, which enable the arrival of a daily scheduled service to Jesselton using a larger Douglas DC-3 by August 1962.[6] A new larger terminal was officially opened in 1968 by the then Transport Minister of Malaysia, Tan Sri Haji Sardon. It could only cater to regional aircraft such as the Fokker 27. From the 1970s, the airport has begun serving international destinations to Balikpapan and Tarakan via Bouraq Indonesian Airlines, the flights to Indonesia were operated 3 times a week by the airline in the early 1970s.[7]

In October 1981, following the completion of works to extend the runway length to 5,600 feet as well as enlarge the parking apron and terminal building, the airport saw the commencement of Malaysia Airlines' Boeing B737-200 operations. The airport also received further additional direct international destination from Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport in Indonesia by Merpati Nusantara Airlines in 1995 due to the close socio-economic ties between Tawau and Makassar.[8]

On 15 September 1995, Malaysia Airlines Flight 2133, a flight from Kota Kinabalu operated by a Fokker 50 aircraft, touched down 500 m (1,600 ft) before the end of the 1,700 m (5,577 ft)-long runway. While attempting a go-around, the aircraft crashed into an informal settlement in Kampung Seri Menanti.[9] There were 34 fatalities, including two crewmembers.[10] In October 2001, another Malaysia Airlines flight (this one operated by a Boeing 737-400) skidded off the runway without causing any injuries or fatalities.

A survey found that the old Tawau Airport had one of the shortest runways in Malaysia. The airport's runway would need to be extended (or a new airport built) to safely accommodate larger aircraft. In view of this, the government announced plans to construct a new airport to be located in the Balung area, approximately 30 km (19 mi) east of downtown Tawau along the Tawau – Semporna highway.


The new Tawau Airport was opened to the public in December 2001. Direct flights to Kuala Lumpur was introduced a year later in 2002 and Johor Bahru in 2006.[11] In 2003, it was officially opened by the then Transport Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Ling Liong Sik. With a capacity of over 1.4 million passengers per annum, it is the second largest airport in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu International Airport. AirAsia added an international destination to Singapore in 2010 and domestically to Kuching in 2018, although both were discontinued due to weak passenger yields. In 2018, 1,642,171 passengers passed through the airport and there were 15,579 aircraft movements.[1]

At present, Tawau Airport has a 2,685 m × 47 m (8,809 ft × 154 ft)-long runway, namely runway 06/24. Runway 24 is equipped with Instrument Landing System (ILS). The 1+12-storey terminal building is equipped with two aerobridges. The airport can accommodate eight aircraft at any given time, and its car park can accommodate 500 vehicles. In addition, there is a police station opposite the terminal building. The new facilities also enabled night operations to be conducted, compared to the old airport that have limited capabilities on its runway.

Malaysia Airlines briefly operated A330-300 for its cargo operations in Tawau utilizing the airports gate 1 Jetway.

In 2019, Tony Fernandes, the CEO of AirAsia Group is planning to connect Tawau with direct flight services to several cities in China, Korea, Japan and other Asean cities by 2020 due to its proximity with Tun Sakaran Marine Park, Mabul, Sipadan island, Maliau Basin, Danum Valley and other major ecotourism sites in southeast Sabah.[12] Prior to the pandemic, the airport actively handled international flights to Tarakan, Indonesia and Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei by MASWings and RB Link. There was also a planned charter flights to Guangzhou originally scheduled by Hainan Airlines by 2020. Earlier, Assafal P Alian, the Sabah Deputy Minister of Tourism and Culture and Environment, has purposed on flight resumption between Tawau and Makassar due to strong demand for the route.[13] While in Indonesia, the head of Nunukan Deputy for Infrastructure has also requested a direct air link between Nunukan and Tawau after recording healthy annual passenger and cargo maritime traffic, with 30,000 passengers commuting between the two areas per-month.[14]

The airport is also slated for a further expansion after registering 1.64 million passengers in 2018, surpassing its original capacity of 1.4 million users. With 19.4% growth in 2018, it is the fourth in terms of passenger growth in the country (after Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Penang International Airport).[15] The expansion is expected to commenced by the end of 2019, allowing the airport to handle 2.5 million passengers annually with an upgrade to the existing facilities together with a better shopping experience.[15][16]

In 2021, due to the pandemic which has caused supply chain export disruption for Tawau, Maskargo launched seasonal twice weekly flights to Hong Kong using an Airbus A330-300 from Malaysia Airlines that has been converted to P2Cargo configuration.[17]

As of 2022, Tawau Airport has yet to be addressed with its ongoing capacity issue. Issues ranging from lack of immigration lanes, limited available seats for passengers to wait at the terminal area to limited aircraft bays during peak hours has caused unnecessary congestion. Lobby for airport expansion has been sought by local politicians and Malaysian Airports over the years but nothing has been approved by the Ministry of Transport. A study from MAVCOM in 2019 has shown that Tawau airport was operating at an excess 130% of its capacity. This was caused by the surge of domestic air travel that has changed over the years to rely more on heavy frequency based flights along with Tawau being the sole feeder for Foreign and Local Tourists in entering into Semporna while no capacity adjustment has been done on the airport to cater this over the years.[18]

Airlines and destinations

One of Tawau Airport's two aerobridges, mainly used by Malaysia Airlines and Malindo Air.
AirAsia Johor Bahru, Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur–International
Malaysia Airlines Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur–International
Malaysia Airlines
operated by MASwings
MYAirlineKuala Lumpur–International[19]


MASkargo Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur–International
World Cargo AirlinesKuala Lumpur–International, Miri
My Jet Xpress Airlines Kuala Lumpur–International, Kota Kinabalu, Shenzhen
Raya Airways Kuala Lumpur–International

Traffic and statistics


Annual passenger numbers and aircraft statistics
% Change
% Change
% Change
2004620,847 12.62,968 9.98,900 6.4
2005680,901 9.73,885 30.99,814 10.3
2006660,331 3.03,030 22.09,215 6.1
2007736,646 11.62,134 29.67,992 13.3
2008768,967 4.41,262 40.98,546 6.9
2009866,601 12.71,951 54.69,876 15.6
2010897,848 3.63,045 56.110,845 9.8
2011922,452 2.73,198 5.010,186 6.1
2012982,153 6.52,489 22.211,087 8.8
20131,202,344 22.42,844 14.313,896 26.5
20141,218,616 1.43,265 14.814,396 3.6
20151,203,792 1.23,910 19.814,007 2.7
20161,271,915 5.73,570 8.713,280 5.2
20171,374,893 8.13,884 8.812,949 2.5
20181,642,171 19.44,060 4.515,579 20.3
20191,833,540 11.73,893 4.115,871 1.9
2020572,365 68.85,071 30.37,022 55.8
Source: Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad[20]


Busiest Flights Out of Tawau Airport by Frequency as of November 2019
1 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah 62 AK, MH, OD
2 Kuala Lumpur 53 AK, MH
3 Sandakan, Sabah 14 MH
4 Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei 6 BI
5 Johor Bahru, Johor 4 AK
6 Tarakan, Indonesia 3 MH

See also


  1. Tawau Airport, Sabah at Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad
  2. WBK - TAWAU at Department of Civil Aviation Malaysia
  3. Colonial Reports - North Borneo 1951. London: Her Majesty Stationery Office. 1951. p. 7.
  4. Colonial Reports - North Borneo 1953 (PDF). London: Her Majesty Stationery Office. 1954. p. 127.
  5. "Borneo Airways". Timetable Images. Timetable Images. 2011. Retrieved 2020-05-25.
  6. North Borneo Annual Report 1962. London: Her Majesty Stationery Office. 1953. p. 178.
  7. "Bouraq Indonesia Airlines". Timetable Images. Timetable Images. 2011. Retrieved 2020-05-25.
  8. "Sepenggal Kenangan dengan Merpati". Kompasiana. 2014-02-02. Retrieved 2020-05-26.
  9. "Plane Overshoots Runway, Crashes, Killing 34 People". 16 September 1995. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  10. Aircraft accident Fokker 50 9M-MGH Tawau Airport (TWU) on 15 Sep 1995
  11. "AirAsia Announces 2002 Financial Results". Breaking Travel News. 16 January 2003. Retrieved 2020-05-28.
  12. International AirAsia flights to S’kan and Tawau early next year
  13. Hamzah Sanudin (2018-11-26). "Penerbangan Tawau Makassar Bakal Wujud". Utusan Borneo (Sabah). Retrieved 2020-05-26.
  14. Tim NN (2019-09-03). "Tinggal Selangkah Lagi Nunukan Segera Miliki Bandara Internasional". Nusantara News. Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  15. "Guangzhou-Tawau direct flights to start January 2020".
  16. "Tawau Airport study ready April". Daily Express. 2019-11-03. Retrieved 2020-05-22.
  17. {maskargo launches inaugural tawau hong kong}
  18. {mavcom study}
  19. "New Routes". MYAirline. 2022. Retrieved 16 December 2022.
  20. "Malaysia Airports: Airports Statistics 2020" (PDF). malaysiaairports. 2 April 2021. Retrieved 5 October 2021.
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