POSTSCRIPT / July 7, 2013 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Fast decision needed on NAIA-Clark tie-up

CLARK FREEPORT — With the tourism clock ticking, the Aquino administration has to recognize quickly the fact that the Ninoy Aquino International Airport has outlived its usefulness.

Ordering a facelift of the 52-year-old airport or constructing a fourth terminal nearby will not work.

Neither will locating an alternate site two hours away from Manila or reclaiming a portion of the bay for an entirely new aeropolis and then hurriedly building another network of freeways and holding areas.

As we keep saying, the situation is much like running a popular restaurant in the tourist belt. The operator cannot meet the demands of a growing clientele by simply doubling the number of tables — if he does not boost the size and capability of the kitchen while upgrading the menu.

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SUFFOCATING: Let us face the facts: NAIA, now handling 31.6 million passengers a year, is stuck with one bumpy 3.2-kilometer runway. The main airstrip and its shorter (1.9-kilometer) alternate handle some 820 landings and takeoffs a day.

There is simply no more space to make the landing strip longer and wider or to build a new one beside it. Surrounding commercial and residential areas are suffocating the airport.

We are lucky Dan Brown missed the usual NAIA ordeal, otherwise he would have referred to it, instead of Manila, as the Gates of Hell.

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MISSING LINK: Much the same ideas ran through the two-hour conversation with Rep. Oscar Rodriguez (3rd Dist., Pampanga) in the “Balitaan” breakfast forum last Friday of the Capampangan in Media Inc. (CAMI) at its Bale Balita (House of News) in this Freeport.

Rodriguez, who as three-term mayor of the capital city of San Fernando was head of the regional development council for Central Luzon, said Clark should be upgraded quickly as the premier international airport to ease the congestion at NAIA in Pasay City.

“Clark is already here, ready to absorb the NAIA overload,” he said. “The only missing link is a dedicated train connecting it to the national capital in less than an hour — and that’s not too difficult to solve.”

Assuming the NorthRail plan of using the old tracks of the Philippine National Railways is no longer feasible, he added, there is the viable option of laying out a line in the middle of the 88-kilometer North Luzon Expressway.

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COSTLY IMPASSE: Businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan, whose company manages NLEx, has a proposal to build an express track in the middle of the expressway, but rival groups and bus operators who feel threatened oppose it.

Ramon S. Ang, San Miguel top honcho, has his own plan for another international airport variously reported to be built either in Bulacan or Cavite. He has his own blueprint for expressways linking his would-be airport to NAIA and the hotel-casinos rising on the reclaimed bay area.

Somebody above them, maybe President Noynoy Aquino, should break the impasse to enable work to start in earnest on whichever plan is deemed best for short-term results and long-term benefits.

Rodriguez floated the idea of the MVP group being “assigned” the region north of Manila and the RSA camp south of the capital – if the idea of a consortium of taipans holding equal shares is not workable.

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TOP QUALITY: Before the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991 sent Americans scampering, Clark Field was the biggest US air base outside the American continent. It was home of the 13th US Air Force watching over the region.

Its 3.4-kilometer main airstrip was designed to handle the biggest plane there was, at that time the Guam-based B-52 behemoths then carpet-bombing Vietnam. If a B-52 got into trouble, it ran to Clark.

Engineers working on the landing strip used to tell us boys how quality control authorities would order whole sections of the runway dug up and done all over again when they did not pass the strict standards.

Mabalacat officials used to complain that jet planes flew low over the populated community, raising fears of accidents aside from noise pollution that disturbed classes, masses, siesta time, poultry, among other concerns.

American officials explained that the direction of the runway was dictated by the prevailing wind pattern in the area. (The Zambales mountain range west of Clark, by the way, protected it from sneak attacks from the direction of China, at that time already considered a threat.)

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SUPPORT NEEDED: While the decrepit NAIA has reached its limit, Clark still has boundless possibilities as the premier international airport.

Even now, bad weather in Manila or congestion forces planes’ diversion to nearby Clark, especially if they have to circle for at least one hour. Aircraft normally carry only enough gas to reach their destination, plus a minimal extra fuel for contingencies.

But Clark has not been getting the quick and full support it needs as a full-blown international airport handling growing traffic. For instance, even such basic equipment as modern x-ray machines has not been adequate, slowing down the processing of passengers and cargo.

Budget carriers flying here include Air Asia Phils, Air Asia Malaysia, Cebu Pacific, Jin Air and Tiger Air Phils. They are favorites of people going to neighboring capitals on business or for pleasure. There are also long-haul carriers such as DragonAir and Asiana Airlines (which has an office near our Bale Balita).

Emirates Airlines will start on Oct. 1 its non-stop daily Dubai-Clark-Dubai services. Qatar Airways will follow on Oct. 28 with its Doha-Clark-Doha flights.

The Clark aviation complex, with its twin airstrips, sprawls on 2,367 hectares. In 2012, it handled 1.3 million passengers, a big improvement on the 650,000 average of previous years. This year, Clark is targeting two million passengers.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 7, 2013)

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