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Lessons from NAIA’s Monday mess

My flight home from Kansai Osaka International Airport was due to arrive at NAIA around 1 p.m. last Monday. Before 12:30 the pilot announced we were about 100 nautical miles away from Manila,  but we were number 17 in the long line of aircrafts trying to land or take off.

I expected that. Airport congestion is a fact of life in NAIA. The Duterte administration is young and we ought to be patient and give it time to sort things out. So we circled around for 45 minutes. It was eerie to see the A330 bank here and there over the foothills of Bulacan and Rizal.

Patient as I tried to be, I was starting to get unnerved. But we finally landed at NAIA and I was so happy to be back on firm ground.

Little did I know that I was one of the lucky ones. NAIA closed down the main runway about an hour after I left the airport to repair what they called a pothole. I saw a photo of the “pothole” posted by abs-cbnnews.com. It looked more like a crater to me. I also expected the asphalt overlay to be thicker than what the photo showed.

Later that evening, I noticed angry posts on Facebook. They apparently diverted flights to Clark and Clark was not equipped to handle all those flights. They lacked facilities, including the simple mobile stairway used to load and unload passengers before the passenger tube became standard facility.

Bettina Osmeña, the wife of Senator Serge posted on Facebook that she was concerned about her mom who was arriving on a Qatar flight from Europe. The next day, I messaged her to ask what happened to her mom. She replied that her mom got home by bus at 4:30 a.m. even as her flight landed at Clark at 5 p.m. Mrs. Osmeña complained, and rightfully so, that her mother suffered a “terrible ordeal… stayed inside the plane for six hours.”

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That was a typical horror story. The Clark Airport had not been given importance through two administrations. The last one dilly dallied on a proposal to upgrade the capacity of the airport terminal.

The French government was asked to finance a study that took a year to complete only to have the study set aside … a total waste of the French taxpayer’s money. Now, a scheduled completion of new facilities for next year is up in the air. A new study costing P500 million is yet to be set for public bidding.

With the congestion at NAIA, flights are routinely diverted to Clark. But as we saw last Monday, passengers of diverted flights had to suffer being imprisoned inside the plane for as long as eight hours, according to some accounts. That is a violation of basic human rights, specially to those who may be somewhat claustrophobic.

That’s why I couldn’t help sneering while watching Usec for Air Transport Bobby Lim being interviewed by the ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC) for a newscast. He sounded like Angel Honrado. He effectively said things turned out well, the situation was a blessing in disguise as it tested the ability of NAIA, Clark and the airlines to respond to an emergency.

No, Mr. Lim. I don’t know where you hid yourself during the emergency period but that was no blessing, disguised or otherwise. Also, none of the entities you mentioned passed the test with flying colors.

If Mr. Lim was part of the recently departed administration, I wouldn’t be surprised at his attempt to paint a rosy picture for a nightmare of a situation. Mr. Lim should take lessons from his boss, Transport Secretary Art Tugade who humbly apologized even if the problem was still a leftover from the previously inept DOT/NAIA team.

An official in the Duterte administration, in case Mr. Lim doesn’t realize, should recognize a problem for what it is, admit its existence and lay out plans to avoid recurrence.

 Indeed, the importance of Sec. Tugade’s apology goes beyond PR. Because he assumed responsibility, he will now take it as a personal mission to get to the root of the problem and do what is necessary. Some of the remedies will take time and he will say so and ask for our patience. But he will see to it the immediately doables will happen.

What ought to be in Sec. Tugade’s “to do” list arising from last Monday’s NAIA nightmare?

First, the public should be told the truth about that main runway. Right now, we get the impression it is only “puede na” as in puede nang pagtiagaan.

The pothole photo is revealingly worrisome. Knowing how pubic infra projects are done, it is easy to suspect the contractor cut corners and specifications to accommodate the usual “for the boys.”

Is the asphalt overlay thick enough? I am not an expert but it looks thin for the kind of punishment that runway takes.

One aviation expert I respect posted on Facebook “this runway was built when aircraft were just 50 tons heavy and landing at 80 mph, now it’s more like 300 tons and 150 mph. With construction science of the ’40’s it won’t last long against the science of the 21st century.”

Maybe, the expert explained, the subgrade design is now below design requirement for today’s use. Or the number of flights is just over its capacity. Add poor quality asphalt and torrential rains and we have a crisis.

That same runway was closed less than two years ago. A story archived on philstar.com dated Sept.  7, 2014 reports: “Some eight international flights were diverted to Clark International Airport (CIA) after runway 06-24 of NAIA was closed. The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) issued notice to airmen (NOTAM) partially closing NAIA 06/24 from midnight to 5 a.m. yesterday due to the runway maintenance repair…

“’The procedure is for de-rubberizing and emergency pavement repair on portion of runway 06/24 between taxiway H2 and E4, forcing us to divert flights that were supposed to arrive past midnight on Saturday,’ CAAP said in an advisory.”

Maybe because we need to use the runway almost 24/7, adequate maintenance is hardly done… or at least the kind of maintenance that would prevent something like last Monday’s emergency.

Secondly, they must make sure repair work uses top quality asphalt and workmanship. With modern giant asphalting equipment, they can even predict hours needed to get the job done.

Thirdly, if Clark is to be an effective diversion airport, it should be provided with enough facilities to handle the volume similar to what it got last Monday. It should be declared criminally unlawful to keep passengers inside planes for longer than 30 minutes.

Fourthly, CIQ staff should be available to handle the volume of passengers from diverted planes. One other reason why passengers are kept inside planes too long is the refusal of CIQ to handle more than their usual load.

Fifth, it seems we are coming to the point that we have to quickly develop Clark as an alternative airport regardless of plans to develop a new NAIA at Sangley which will take time. This means, we have to fast track the construction of a much larger Clark terminal.

I recall that when Chichos Luciano was running Clark Airport, he had complete plans for a larger terminal but was ignored by then DOTC Sec. Mar Roxas and later ignored as well by Jun Abaya until he was removed and replaced by a cousin of P-Noy. In fairness to Emigdio Tanjuatco III, I got the impression that he too was frustrated as he was ignored as well even if he was P-Noy’s cousin.

 Finally, it makes sense to scale down tourism promotion expenditures, including hosting a Miss Universe pageant, until such time as vital tourism infrastructures are available. Can you imagine if something like last Monday’s NAIA nightmare happened on the eve of the pageant?

That ANC interview of young French tourists says it all. They said they enjoyed their stay in the country only to be marred by the mess at NAIA which leaves bad memories of the Philippines for them.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com.

Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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