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From heaven to hell

I went on a semi-business trip to Hawaii where I spent several days meeting some people, but also enjoyed the cool, pleasant weather that predominates the whole year because of the trade winds blowing all over the islands. The warm sun and the crystal clear waters are just some of the reasons why tourists from all over the world flock to this place which, as I told my American associates, is like a piece of heaven on earth. 

Tourism happens to be the major driver of Hawaii’s economy, accounting for an estimated 21 percent of its GDP. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, 2015 was a banner year with 8.65 million visitor arrivals or an average of 214,469 visitors daily, spending an average of $41 million per day – which in turn supported more than 170,000 jobs last year.

The US Department of Transportation has been very supportive of Hawaii’s tourism industry, allocating funds for infrastructure upgrades like the $16.5 million in grant funding last year for the Honolulu International Airport for runway widening, full rehabilitation of the lighting system to maintain safety during airfield operations when visibility is difficult, and other improvements to enhance the convenience of passengers. As noted by Sen. Brian Schatz, “When we invest in airport infrastructure, we grow our tourism industry, connect families and businesses, and make our transportation system operate more safely and efficiently for everyone.”

But like they say, there is no place like home. So after spending some time in heaven, I was looking forward to going home – only to find myself literally landing in hell.

I was one of the unlucky passengers on Philippine Airlines flight PR 101 which was about 20 minutes before landing at the NAIA what the Captain told us we were being diverted to Clark International Airport in Pampanga because of a five-inch deep, nine-meter long crack on Runway 06-24 that needed to be repaired. The discovery of the crack resulted in the closure of the runway, which in turn caused the diversion of dozens of international and local flights to Clark Airport – which to my surprise was totally unprepared to handle such a situation. There were only a few buses available to transport passengers and there was only one airstair (the staircase used by passengers to board or alight from an aircraft).

After the 10-hour flight from Honolulu, there we were, stuck inside the aircraft for another seven hours. What a disaster! It was actually worse for other passengers in another aircraft who had to stay longer with no food and no water. Transportation Secretary Art Tugade took responsibility and issued an apology for the temporary closure of NAIA. He did not pin the blame on the previous DOTC administration – but let’s face it, there is no one else to blame but the previous administration’s DOTC Secretary Jun Abaya and former Manila International Airport Authority general manager Jose Angel Honrado.

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Obviously, no regular maintenance was being conducted to prevent the damage and deterioration that is expected on a main runway that is used by heavy aircraft 24/7, with the condition sometimes exacerbated by inclement weather. Imagine, the crack was only discovered when Eva Air complained about the damage to the wing of one of its B747 airplanes that was hit by flying asphalt debris when the plane landed.

The worst part is when you have an alternative international airport like Clark with no basic facilities like a staircase and all. That is simply criminal! As Senator Dick Gordon pointed out, it’s embarrassing and the height of “sheer stupidity that we have all these wonderful infrastructure and they are not being used properly, while people suffer daily at the NAIA.”

While we commiserate with and understand the plight of the stranded passengers – I was one of them, after all – PAL or Cebu Pacific are not to be blamed. The two airlines did their best to manage the situation and even the Civil Aeronautics Board praised them for the way they handled the situation. PAL did its best, and we congratulate Jimmy Bautista for personally handling the situation himself. Jimmy tells me the estimated losses for that five to six hour disruption, with flights also cancelled, is somewhere close to P30 million. More likely than not, the total losses for all the other affected airlines could reach P100 million.

I experienced something similar to the Monday incident in New York when the JFK airport was closed due to heavy snow but improvements have since been made to alleviate the inconvenience to passengers.

Art Tugade certainly has his hands full in putting the Transportation department and the affiliated agencies including the MIAA (and NAIA) into shape. The incident has once again brought unpleasant recollections on why NAIA was dubbed as the worst international airport ever. NAIA has become so congested, and no question that we need an alternative international airport to ease the situation. PAL has expressed support for plans to move out general aviation operations from NAIA to Subic, Clark or even Sangley to reduce congestion, with PAL chairman Lucio Tan saying he will pull out his private fleet in compliance with the DOTC initiative.

Hopefully, the Monday nightmare will serve as a valuable lesson about the need for preparedness, and why we have to be proactive rather than reactive. God forbid, but what if a disaster or a terrorism-related emergency occurred that needed immediate evacuation of people and passengers? There will certainly be hell to pay for it.

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