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Airport congestion is an emergency

The air traffic congestion at NAIA produces the same, if not greater, negative impact on economic growth as the more visible Manila port congestion. A good international airport as the country’s gateway is essential to economic growth.

NAIA’s congestion, like the Manila port congestion, constricts our economic growth. That 6.1 percent growth last year may have been seven percent if we did not have all these congestion problems at the airport, at the Manila port and at EDSA.

It isn’t as if the NAIA congestion happened overnight. Our officials knew about it but did nothing. I showed last Friday that the Official Gazette published a Mar Roxas press release of three years ago that recognized the problem and announced, indeed promised, quick solutions. Mar left DOTC and Sec Jun Abaya miserably failed to follow up.

The numbers from MIAA itself shows the number of aircraft movements (excluding military and general aviation) have remained static over the last three years. It was 235,517 in 2012, 236,870 in 2013 and 236,589 in 2014.

The number of domestic flights declined 4.1 percent to 149,421 last year from the year-ago figure of 155,832. On the other hand, international flights increased 9.9 percent to 87,629 from 79,685. That shows foreign investor and tourism interest in the country.

Passenger growth in terms of passenger volume managed to inch up by 3.1 percent last year, likely because foreign airlines are using larger capacity aircraft. MIAA data showed the number of domestic and international passengers reached 32 million last year from 31 million in 2012. I would consider that stagnant.

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I am told that passenger growth should normally increase twice the nation’s GDP growth rate. We grew by 6.1 percent last year so passenger growth should be about 12 percent, the same number cited by that Mitsubishi official who said in a briefing last week that our constricted airports are not meeting potential demand.

Tourism is the biggest victim of NAIA congestion because most of the tourists who visit us use NAIA as their gateway to the country. That means all the rosy projections of Sec Mon Jimenez in terms of tourism growth, local jobs created and contribution to GDP growth are all thrown out the window.

Air cargo is also a very important part of any nation’s growth these days. Our semiconductor industry is particularly vulnerable to congestion at NAIA. They are part of a regional supply chain that depends on timely delivery of their semi processed exports to manufacturing facilities abroad in a tight logistical operation called just in time inventory system. Delays will force some to leave or discourage those who are thinking of coming.

As experts pointed out in my column last Friday, outside of the quick exit runways long promised by government, congestion at NAIA could be vastly relieved if the right policies are promulgated and the right procedures adopted.

As for those quick exit runways Mar Roxas promised three years ago, I understand DOTC is waiting for another study on it. After three years they are still waiting for a study? Caramba!!!

The experts I consulted agree that while the new Eurocat navigation system will be a big help, sophisticated equipment alone will not solve our problem unless we have properly trained people manning it too. Here is one reaction:

“With regard to the deployment of Eurocat, it is a well-known, well-reputed, and industry standard.  So the deployment of it is a major step forward in the modernization of the Air Traffic Control support systems.  However, it isn’t the silver bullet. 

“It does give ATC the capability to better manage air traffic if their policies, procedures and training are updated to appropriate standards to match the capability of the equipment. If correctly used, it should certainly provide the opportunity to increase the traffic capacity of the whole of the Philippines’ airspace (not just the bit around the major airports).”

And here is a reaction from Filipino transport expert Rene Santiago: “It takes more than equipment to get optimum performance. The Eurocat will be useless without good men and ground facilities. The Eurocat would also not yield as much improvement if the aircraft cannot get out of the way upon landing. It seems the rapid exit is not yet done.

“In the presentation to Congress of that IATA guy, NAIA was reported as very deficient in the basic ground facilities as to be dangerous. None of the local experts ever claimed that 40 movements was the absolute maximum.

“Under excellent conditions, like sunny day, the runway capacity can exceed 40. Japanese airport experts showed me a chart where NAIA at some moments reached 50! But they prefer to use 36 movements as working design limit.

“The MRT-3 was designed for 350,000 passengers/day, but is carrying more than 500,000 per day. Look at MRT-3’s safety record. Engineers provide for a margin of safety, for those exceptional (and occasional) circumstances. Given the conditions at NAIA, which foreign experts usually do not know, would you be comfortable to get it working normally at 52?”

Another expert reacted to my having cited Gatwick and compared its performance with NAIA. For one thing, Gatwick is privately owned and therefore is concerned with efficiency as it impacts on the bottom line. NAIA is run by government bureaucrats who are not competent or care much about accomplishing normal objectives inherent in their jobs.

For another, “Gatwick even if on a single runway has correct ICAO standards while NAIA is no longer ICAO design compliant. Gatwick has 2 parallel taxiways connected by multiple rapid exit taxiways connecting the runway and connecting each other so the aircraft can vacate active areas more rapidly.”

The same expert said he made a study which also included a comparison of aircraft movement at Gatwick with the 2011 movements in NAIA.

“Before the slot enforcement, NAIA in some peak hours also reached 56-57 movements on an almost 50 percent arrival and 50 percent departures. At that time also the average delay in departures was over 45 minutes with the longest at 1.5 hours for 50 percent of the flights. The arrivals were delayed an average of 20 mins for almost 80 percent of the flights.

“The Gatwick delays were much lower as they were controlling the domino effects of their flights by having what they call ‘fire-breaks’ which was a system of bringing down capacity levels much lower than designed average so that any overflow of delays into the next hour does not overcome the capacity on the next hour. They impose these fire breaks based on historical statistic on each season mostly every 2-3 hours during the peak hours of the day.”

That NAIA congestion should be treated as an emergency that requires a special Palace task force like the one Sec Rene Almendras headed to address the port congestion. It may be pointed out that the problem at the airport only involves DOTC unlike the one at the pier and DOTC Secretary Jun Abaya should be able to handle it.

That’s the point. Can anyone honestly say DOTC Secretary Abaya can handle any major or even minor problem under his wing? He has proven himself a colossal failure in handling MRT 3 to the point that the system is now a threat to life and limb.

The other problem with the NAIA situation is that it involves former Gen Honrado who is known to push his weight around because he is an untouchable close buddy of P-Noy… parang si General Purisima sa NAIA, ika nga. Even Abaya is understandably careful because if push comes to shove, Honrado will make him look like Mar Roxas after Mamasapano.

Then there is CAAP, an organization which is run by retired air force generals with big egos. They think they know everything about aviation on account of having been air force pilots but the world of civil aviation in today’s world is a totally different thing. I am sure their training and work experience will not qualify them to run an organization similar to CAAP elsewhere in the world.

But as I have shown by talking to a lot of people who know the industry and by reading a lot with the help of Google search, there isn’t a dearth of knowledge among qualified local experts. All we need is some humility on the part of Honrado and the other retired generals in CAAP to admit they need help and fast.

They all have to be given deadlines. How can they be allowed to do nothing about a project like the quick exit taxiways Mar Roxas promised three years ago?

Filipinos have proven themselves to be among the best managers in the world. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the managers P-Noy entrusted our transport infrastructure with. That’s P-Noy’s big failure.

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

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