POSTSCRIPT / August 30, 2018 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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NAIA’s twin gate: Clark or Bulakan?

CLARK International Airport (CRK) in Pampanga and a modern airport-city proposed to be built in a Bulacan town are in a friendly race to become the twin international gateway of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) in Pasay City.

I’m partial to the Clark airport located in my home city of Mabalacat, but as things stand it seems CRK would lose to the ₱735.63-billion airport-city designed to rise on a 2,500-hectare bayside site in Bulakan town in Bulacan province.

 By “twin gateway” is meant an airport that shares arrivals/departures and seamlessly absorbs diverted international air traffic — as in that Aug. 16 emergency when a Xiamen Airlines jet skidded upon landing and blocked NAIA’s only runway for two days, stranding thousands of passengers.

A number of incoming flights were diverted to Clark some 45 air kilometers north. As seen on TV spot coverage that day, CRK was caught ill-prepared for the sudden deluge of passengers destined for MNL.

Ageing NAIA has been given by experts a remaining life of 10-15 years. Cosmetics won’t help. Had NAIA been equal to Singapore’s Changi with its three runways, or Tokyo’s Haneda with four, a Xiamen-type accident would not have paralyzed the airport’s operations.

The race to become NAIA’s twin appears to be going against Clark, my sentimental favorite, in the face of an aggressive challenger raring to develop a modern airport in Bulakan especially now that it has been given a tentative green light by the government.

While 2,367-hectare Clark airport enjoys a head start, having been there for half-century with a world-class 3.2-kilometer runway that can take the biggest planes that the aviation industry can throw at it, CRK is some 80 kms. away by road – quite distant — from the national capital region.

That disadvantage could be neutralized by a dedicated express rail line zipping passengers and cargo between CRK and MNL within 45 minutes, but there is no such serious plan. In comparison, Bulakan would be just 20-45 minutes away from any point in Metro Manila.

Clark airport officials talk of plans to build another parallel runway and a modern terminal to be operational by 2020 and capable of processing up to 12 million passengers a year. Present capacity is only 2.5 million.

Unfortunately, Clark’s expansion depends on the chancy availability of public funds. Compare this to the claim of Bulakan’s proponents with the San Miguel Holdings Corp. that they are ready with $15 billion to complete the project fast enough for operations to start after six years.

The San Miguel proposal, which was approved on April 25 by the National Economic and Development Authority, includes building four runways and a passenger terminal with a capacity of 100 million passengers per year.

 More complementation than competition

TRANSPORTATION Secretary Arthur Tugade has said that the Bulakan proposal was approved “subject to resolution of pending issues, including a submission of ‘Joint and Several Liability’ agreement by SMHC and its parent company.”

He added that after the submission of the revised Concession Agreement, along with the Risk Allocation Matrix, the NEDA and the finance department gave their comments on Aug. 9, and are now under consideration of SMHC. After that, the DoTr will negotiate with SMHC to finalize the Concession Agreement, submit it to NEDA ICC, and finally open the Swiss Challenge process.

Meantime, Clark can continue its complementation with NAIA. But its marketing thrust is now being redirected to Northern Luzon instead of the original targets of Central Luzon and areas north of the Pasig River.

The idea is to lure foreigners to tourist spots in its “catchment” area (Central and Northern Luzon with a population of 23 million), and to serve departing passengers, including Overseas Filipino Workers, who prefer to take off from Clark instead of going all the way to traffic-choked Manila.

Clark’s refocusing fits into that of a regional airport – but with enhanced capability to handle international flights — much like Laoag, Cebu, Davao and other key airports already operating and other terminals being planned or upgraded.

The new game looks less of a competition to become NAIA’s twin international gateway and more of complementation.

Tugade said: “Having multiple airports is something that the world’s biggest economies do. Ideally, there should be a train service linking these airports, which is also being pursued by the government. This complementation strategy was already part of the air transport roadmap from day one, and rest assured, that’s what we are going to do.”

The operating condition of NAIA conjures up images of an old restaurant whose owner is trying to catch up with the growing clientele by repainting the place and adding more tables — without upgrading the kitchen, the menu and the parking area.

Formerly called Manila International Airport until 1987, NAIA has the capacity to handle 45 movements (take-off and landing) per hour. Since 2015, however, activity has been overly stretched to 66 movements per hour, thereby compromising safety and efficiency.

Studies have shown that the overcrowding at the four NAIA terminals being served by only one runway costs airlines ₱1.1 billion and passengers ₱2.8 billion in missed productivity yearly.

Adding another runway parallel to it would help ease the congestion, but the 625-hectare airport site is hemmed in by heavily built-up residential and business areas. Expropriating the land needed for expansion would be too costly financially and politically.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 30, 2018)

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