Airports – Manila Standard

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I love the sight of airports, especially at the end of a long flight.

If I’m sleeping through the touchdown, I’m always happy to wake to the sight of the familiar jetway and terminal, and not, say, a set of pearly gates flanked by winged angels with harps—or, who knows, a bunch of evil-looking dudes with horns and pitchforks. You can never be sure where you’ll end up.

One of my memorable flights—one where I really thought I’d end up in either of the two scenarios above—was many years ago, when I flew into Denver from New York for a lender’s conference on the city’s plan to build a new airport to replace the old and cramped facility at Stapleton.

Sure enough, we ran into one of those Rocky Mountain blizzards as we were approaching Stapleton. The plane began heaving and bucking like a rodeo bronco, and it didn’t help that my seatmate was a retired US Navy flyer who insisted on regaling me with war stories about planes crashing and burning up.

It was all white snow outside, zero visibility, and I was painfully aware that this was also what the pilots were seeing through their windshield as they tried to land the plane amid the Colorado mountain peaks, blind and guided only by instruments.

Needless to say, this white-knuckle experience convinced all the bankers on the plane about the dire need to replace Stapleton, and so, a couple of years later, voila! Denver had its brand-new airport, today the largest airport by land area in the US as well as one of the busiest hubs there.

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Luckily, we don’t have to worry about blizzards here. Our real issue when it comes to airports is the sheer lack of them, considering not only our overloaded international gateway in Manila (which I still maintain should be renamed Manila International Airport and not Ninoy Aquino International Airport), but also out in the provinces where airports should be driving tourism and general economic growth.

Naia accounts for nearly 90 percent of all domestic passengers and over 80 percent of international passengers. Last year it served about 39.5 million passengers, or 30 percent more than its design capacity of 31 million a year. Clearly, not just our tourism growth, but even human life, is at risk here from this under-capacity.

By contrast, Clark handled only about 25 percent of its 4 million passenger capacity. The two runways are extra sturdy, thanks to the Americans, but they’re also designed for quick-takeoff military aircraft. At only 400 meters long, they are still way shorter than the ideal length of one kilometer, especially for today’s super-stretch passenger planes. And of course, as people who’ve used Clark will tell you, the airport terminal could stand a whole lot of improvement.

Thus, full deployment of Clark as an international gateway, together with capacity rebalancing between NAIA and Clark, are obviously the very first order of the day for our transport planning officials. At NAIA, scrapping the shorter intersecting runway will actually increase its capacity. And at Clark, we’re looking at no less than a new passenger terminal and, down the road, a 3.2-kilometer long third runway.

Of course, capacity rebalancing between both airports won’t be possible without fast passenger and cargo interconnections between the two. This calls for some kind of high-speed rail link—something the aborted Northrail project was intended to be—or else some cheaper and lower-tech variant that could be quickly built, such as a long-distance bus rapid transit scheme that could utilize the median strip along NLEX.

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But there are also other fixes that need to be made to the country’s airport infrastructure, not just the gateways.

One is the installation of a modern Communication Navigation Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) system at Naia. This will ensure on-time, safer, and more efficient flights. It’s expected to be completed this year-end.

Another is installation of night landing capabilities at all of our provincial airports. Nineteen have already been completed and another nine are ongoing. By enabling more night-time flights, this also helps to decongest Naia (and, later, Clark) where most of these flights originate and terminate.

A third initiative is building more international airports to accommodate more point-to-point international visitors to our major tourism destinations, further also relieving Naia. Expected to be completed by next year are ongoing projects in Legazpi, Albay; Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Panglao, Bohol; and Mactan, Cebu.

With all this flurry of activity, what will have to take a backseat for now are ambitious proposals from the private sector for brand new mega-airports around Metro Manila. One proposal, from San Miguel, was to build a P700-billion “aerotropolis” spanning 2,500 hectares in Bulacan.

Another, from a group led by the Sy family, was a P1.3-trillion proposal to reclaim about 2,500 hectares offshore from Sangley Point, Cavite. In lieu of this proposal, government will instead spend only P600-700 million in order to redevelop the existing Sangley facility to handle turboprops and general aviation traffic that presently utilize Naia. Again, decongestion is the name of the game.

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Government plans to finance all these airport projects on a pay-as-you-go basis, from tax revenues and the general budget. This has raised a minor flap among adherents of private-public partnerships, who are upset that government discarded pending proposals to build multiple provincial airports on a package basis.

These PPP loyalists raise many valid points, including the superior quality and inherent self-checking nature of private proposals. But at the end of the day, they can’t get away from the dismal record of PPP under PNoy, who only finished one such project per year.

They may complain that, like Clark Airport, they need a longer runway from which to take off. But, fairly or not, sometimes it’s more bother to build out that runway than it is to simply switch to smaller and more nimble aircraft so we get where we want to go, faster.

Readers can write me at [email protected]

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