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That dual airport conundrum

A conference was recently held at Clark among some of its locators and they not surprisingly urged the government to speed up the development of Clark International Airport, saying that a dual-airport policy will boost investment activity. If I were one of the air carriers, logistics firms and business and investment associations operating in Clark, of course I will say that. But I doubt it is a viable solution to NAIA’s congestion problem.

I am also in favor of a dual airport policy for Metro Manila but it cannot be Clark. It will have to be an airport nearer Manila. Clark’s distance is a fatal problem if you are thinking of doing a Narita to Tokyo’s Haneda. Narita is about 70 kilometers on a world class espressway with no EDSA traffic to the center of Tokyo to Clark’s 90 kilometers to Makati. And if you are living in Alabang and Sta Rosa as many in the metro area do now, we are talking over 100 kilometers.

The guys who use the airport the most because they ship cargo out daily are the semi conductor producers. They operate out of processing zones in the Calabarzon area. They will want a closer airport to where they are.

But Clark can be developed as another major airport, a regional one for Central and Northern Luzon. OFWs from these areas need not go to Manila to fly out of the country. Tourists bound for Baguio and other points north and west to Subic can take a Clark flight.

The idea of Clark eventually replacing NAIA came from then DOTC Sec Mar Roxas. He was barely a month in office, he briefed a business group and he talked to me after. He talked of Clark as a replacement for NAIA and selling NAIA to developers and the money used for Clark’s development as the country’s gateway.

It was uncharacteristic of Mar to talk of such a bold plan without enough thinking on it. Luckily, he was too laid back to do anything about it. Now we all know we cannot close down NAIA. Congested as NAIA is now, we need it.

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We need something like a JFK/La Guardia situation. JFK is just about 30 kilometers from Manhattan and La Guardia is about 13 kilometers. We need a new airport site close enough to Manila to be a good alternative to congested NAIA. This is why Ramon Ang’s proposed airport in either Cavite or Bulacan must be encouraged by government.

The second airport aside, NAIA is not hopeless if only our officials started thinking out of the box. The big problem of NAIA is its single runway. The other major problem of NAIA is that it is the only airport in the world that I know of whose terminals are so far apart from each other.

If you are flying in from a domestic point and landed at NAIA T3 and you have to catch an international flight at Terminal 1, good luck! The traffic flow around the terminals, more of a gridlock actually, is such that you will likely need 45 minutes to an hour to get to Terminal 1.

And if your domestic flight was delayed, as these flight almost always are, you are better off booking a room at a Resorts World hotel. You will never make it to Terminal 1.

What ought to be done at NAIA is an almost zero-based redevelopment plan. Nothing is sacred except the runway. Everything else, including Terminal 3 must pass a stringent test on its usefulness where it is.

I do not believe we have run out of land for expansion at NAIA. People with vested interest are just saying that. There are people who got sweetheart commercial deals during past administrations. There are politically influential squatters as well.

But land… I think they have more than enough land to put up a second runway at NAIA and build the terminals next to each other.  Passengers should be able to transfer from one terminal to another easily by monorail or same rail-based transportation as in other airports abroad.

Indeed, as I previously recalled here, Ramon Ang showed me a Google map where he indicated where the second runway can be built. It will require the demolition of the general aviation hangars but these are due for transfer to Sangley anyway.

The only way to make Clark viable as an alternative to NAIA, if at all, is having a fast train. Mar Roxas, when he was still DOTC Secretary gave what he called a table top estimate of $2 billion. But San Miguel, when it backed out of a proposal to build Clark’s low cost terminal gave a $10 billion cost estimate for the train.

I am sure the lawyers at DOTC who understand finance, I hope, will figure out that it is not going to be worth the $10 billion to build the train service which will have to subsidize by government forever. It will also take ten years or even more to build, given our usual problems with getting big projects started.

Assuming the second runway is built over current NAIA land and there is a need for a third runway at NAIA, it should be cheaper to expropriate land from the villages around the airport to build that runway than to spend $10 billion on that train. Building that third runway will also be faster.   

The problem with NAIA is that through the years many barnacles have latched on it so that its managers are unable to or afraid to move. On the other hand, it is also true that NAIA managers have almost always been political protégés with no imagination or management skills. Fix that problem, get some imagination and watch a rehabilitation of NAIA like we never imagined possible.

I have no problem with the Clark stakeholders urging the Philippine government to fast-track the development of Clark’s infrastructure to meet current and future passenger, carrier and cargo growth. But let’s get this straight: Clark is not proximate to Manila. And given EDSA traffic and the fact that the NLEX-SLEX connector roads won’t be breaking ground soon, Clark can’t be a viable alternate to NAIA other than in times of extreme emergency.

NAIA by itself isn’t hopeless. Indeed, by having the gateway right at the city, we have an advantage for tourists, investors and local travelers. NAIA offers much potential yet unseen by unimaginative bureaucrats. That’s what makes NAIA seem hopeless.

If P-Noy takes this NAIA total rehabilitation as a personal project, since it is named after his father, we may yet be able to get the work started. As it is, the airport is a national disgrace. And the congestion isn’t going to encourage more airlines to fly in and bring tourists here as well.

Just get this almost zero based rehab plan for NAIA going, P-Noy. It will be a legacy worthy of your heroic father who must be squirming in his grave right now for having his name attached to one of the, if not the most undesirable airport in the world.

Terminal case

 I realize they call it Terminal 1, Terminal 2 and Terminal 3. But NAIA officials shouldn’t make us feel the terminals are just living up to their name.

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

 

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