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Keep NAIA, forget fast train from Clark

I like it when I hear from our overseas countrymen who follow us from wherever they are via philstar.com, our internet site. One such Pinoy expat is Ben Lao, who comes from Magallanes, Sorsogon. He graduated from UST in 1966 at age 20.

Ben worked briefly for the firm of Architect Angel Nakpil where he participated in the planning and design of Greenhills Shopping Center among others. He left for the US in 1967 to pursue graduate studies and stayed there. But he has never lost interest in how our country is doing.

A few weeks ago, he wrote me an e-mail to say he came across my column in the March 11, 2013 issue of PhilStar. “Your article was particularly illuminating as you articulated the various challenges faced by the DOTC in its efforts to upgrade and modernize various Philippine airports. I have since read a few more of your articles and I wish to compliment you on your continued focus on infrastructure projects.”

Ben is an international expert in airports --- he has provided consulting services in airport planning, design and development all over the globe. He has over the years worked with some of the largest architectural, engineering firms such as Parsons. He has also provided consulting services directly to airport authorities in New York,  Houston, LAX and Honolulu just to name a few. He has also provided services directly to various airlines including American, Delta, United, USAir and formerly, Northwest.

Ben has a Master of Science from Pratt Institute School of Architecture & City Planning and a Masters from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He has led an Executive Education Course on Airport Planning, Airport Architecture and Development for Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Ben has been involved in over 75 airports worldwide, some highly complex, multi-billion dollar airport infrastructure projects, in very senior capacity as project executive and principal planner.  He told me one of his latest projects is the Guangzhou International Airport and that’s a big one. 

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Ben sought me out at the Tuesday Club this week. “Your articles have inspired me to reach out because I firmly believe you may be the best person to lead the effort in calling for urgent actions on the part of Government by harnessing the voices, concerns and needs of the business community.” I told him it was getting frustrating trying to get DOTC to do something… anything other than shuffle papers.

Ben said he was also inspired by an article on local airports two years ago by another PhilStar columnist, Alex Magno. Luckily for him, Alex was on a rare visit to the Tuesday Club this week so he was able to exchange views with him as well.

So what does Ben, with all his airport experience and expertise, have to say about our country’s airport, situation? For starters, he said that NAIA 1 is not the world’s worst airport, but it is pretty bad. The terminal building, he said, was designed to be an architectural marvel but has little regard for smooth passenger flow and positive passenger experience.

While he is not sure the iconic terminal building is worth saving, he is sure NAIA itself as an airport site certainly is. He thinks it will be a tragedy to close NAIA down and sell it to property developers as Mar Roxas proposed, to raise funds to build Clark. Today’s business travelers want to be in and out of a city fast and NAIA is perfect for that.

Clark is fine as a regional airport, but Ben doesn’t believe it can ever be the international gateway to Metro Manila simply because it is too far. “I do not believe moving the entire operation to Clark is a viable solution, not for the long term and definitely not for the short term.”

Ben said that from his experience the fast train solution is not a viable solution. We are better off using NorthRail’s right of way for a commuter train that may also carry some cargo. If that is so, DOTC better move fast before squatters reclaim land already cleared at a cost of over a billion pesos.

Trains are good for passengers with little or no luggage, Ben explains. Consider the Filipino with at least two balikbayan boxes or extra large luggage and the train is clearly not the way to go. I guess he is right.

I remember the time I was in Europe and was traveling on trains with a medium sized luggage and there was nowhere to put it near where I was to be seated. Since I was with a group of 10 Asian journalists, 10 pieces of luggage pretty much blocked easy movement of passengers along the aisle of our coach.

The other thing about “fast trains” to the airport is the substantial fare subsidy required. It will not make enough money or attract enough passengers. And it takes too long to build, as much as a decade Mar Roxas once said.

Ben clarifies that he is not against the development of Clark. “On the contrary, every effort should be exerted to implement the full development of Clark as quickly as possible. But Clark must be well thought-out with sufficient flexibility to evolve into an alternative gateway for some airlines – be they low-cost airlines or full service carriers. But Clark cannot be the replacement airport for NAIA.”

Ben thinks NAIA’s location is perfect. What it needs is a better reconfiguration of where everything should be. He thinks it is funny that we have four terminals far from each other when our volume of passengers can very well be taken by one well designed terminal. If your flight lands later than scheduled at T3 with a connecting flight in T1, you would be lucky to catch your flight given road traffic between T3 and T1. 

But Ben doesn’t think our situation is hopeless. He thinks something can still be done in the remaining years of P-Noy. “I feel compelled to voice my opinion now… to provide some sensible solutions that may help expedite the implementation of some key projects… to not only improve airport standards but also help create good job opportunities quickly for the people and generate more revenue for the country.”

Ben said that “personally, I believe the Philippines should be the major aviation hub in the Asia-Pacific region and not Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Our location is more geographically central. The process to reclaim our rightful role will take time, but the task is doable.”  

Ben thinks each of our regional airports shouldn’t be generic boxes of steel and concrete but instead give the visitors a taste of local culture. He has some ideas on how to improve the Mactan airport project which he believes should be planned with provisions for future growth. Unfortunately, he doesn’t think our present airports are well conceptualized.

The most important idea coming from Ben is his strong conviction that we must hold on to NAIA, but drastically improve its facilities. The single runway is not a real problem that DOTC officials say it is. Ben cited such airports as San Diego in California and La Guardia in New York similarly with single or crossed runways and both are handling a lot more flights than NAIA.

Based on his experience, Ben doesn’t think Ramon Ang can deliver a greenfield airport or one started from scratch within three years as the San Miguel chief boasted. He is not surprised RSA is putting the project in the back burner. Baka mapahiya lang.

It makes sense for the NAIA administration to recover a lot of its properties around the airport taken over by squatters and some politically connected individuals paying pittance as rentals. It may even prove more cost effective to expropriate land close to the airport to expand it rather than build a new airport elsewhere from scratch.

If we have to build a new airport to augment NAIA, Ben believes Sangley Point is the best location. It is close enough to Metro Manila and it can be connected to an existing expressway to the city which, in turn, can be easily expanded.

Oh well… I love this fresh outlook about an old and persistent problem. We really ought to utilize Pinoy brainpower and global experience like Ben Lao who has proven himself world class. But whatever we do, we have to get moving fast which I don’t believe DOTC is inclined to do. How sad.

Campaign period

 From Sen. Miriam

Q: Why is the campaign period scheduled during summer?

A: Because this is the time the true nature of politicians is exposed. Kung matunaw sila sa init, ibig sabihin plastic sila. Kung masunog sila sa araw, ibig sabihin mapapel sila. At kung mahilig silang magbilad sa araw, malamang buwaya sila.”

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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