No choice but to use Clark

- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - December 10, 2015 - 9:00am

It looks like the next administration will have no choice but to use Clark, even as a stop gap measure to ease the serious congestion at NAIA. It is getting very expensive for airlines to live with NAIA’s congestion problem, and a new airport in Sangley will take at least 10 years to build.

Another runway parallel to the main one would more quickly address the problem, but that’s not going to happen. It will require expropriation of land in middle class subdivisions as well as uprooting squatters. There will be no political will to do that, specially if Mar Roxas wins.

Indeed, the construction of quick exit taxiways aimed to reduce the amount of time an aircraft is on the main runway was never built. Mar Roxas promised this back in 2012. Nothing happened.

Clark is further from the Metro Manila business centers than most international airports are to theirs. Worse, the traffic between Balintawak to Makati more than doubles the travel time from Clark to Balintawak via NLEX.

There is also no fast train to connect Clark with Makati or Bonifacio Global City. Last year, Dr. Shizuo Iwata, who led the crafting of the so called Dream Plan to decongest Metro Manila, told reporters a bullet train could provide quick access to Clark but the estimated price tag of up to $7 billion would be “very expensive.”

“I don’t suggest it,” Iwata told reporters. 

I cannot imagine Pinoy passengers, with all those balikbayan boxes, riding the fast train that’s normally designed to transport people.

But things have become so bad at NAIA the airlines are starting to lose patience with government. The economics of the NAIA congestion can force airlines to restrict the number of flights to the detriment of our tourism and other industries. Or they can move some flights to Clark.

Talking to reporters who joined PAL’s inaugural flight to New Zealand, PAL president Jimmy Bautista said PAL may lead the move to Clark. Some of its competitors probably want to do it too but are afraid of losing competitiveness to PAL.

Jimmy said PAL losses reach $1,800 (around P84,000) for every 30-minute delay in its flights due to the runway congestion at NAIA. “Many times we fly around Metro Manila for an additional 20 to 30 minutes – we did an estimate of how much it costs us for a minute of delay because of congestion, it is around $60 (around P2,800) every minute on average.”

The amount covers jet fuel, maintenance, and additional labor expenses. “We pay our pilots and cabin crew a basic pay and productivity pay based on flying hours. So that’s additional cost,” Mr. Bautista explained.

Jimmy said most of the airlines would be forced to fly to Clark if they want to continue their expansion program. “We want to decongest Manila that’s why we’re operating in Cebu, and soon we’ll have to operate in Clark.”

Jimmy claims “if there are no external factors (airport and air traffic congestion), our on-time performance should be around 95 percent.”

DOTC admits NAIA has surpassed its designed capacity for aircraft movements back in 2013. A JICA study expects NAIA to handle some 37.78 million passengers this year, beyond its 30-million annual passenger capacity per year.

Moving to Clark will, however, take guts for the airlines. It will be recalled Air Asia initially started operating out of Clark but moved to NAIA after it merged with Zest Air. The experience of Air Asia in Clark had apparently not been good for business.

Former PAL president Avelino L. Zapanta had been telling me that using Clark is inevitable as a substitute for NAIA or in a two gateway operation. NAIA volume will grow by at least 10 percent a year but capacity will be the same for at least the next 10 years.

This week, Zapanta told Business Mirror using Clark would decongest NAIA overnight. But, Zapanta said, “the transportation department is not listening.”

Zapanta said DOTC is too engrossed with the idea of building an airport in Sangley Point, Cavite, a prospect that would take at least 10 years. DOTC Secretary Jun Abaya is from Cavite and Sangley is in his district.

 Clark, however, cannot handle too many flights given its current limited terminal capacity. This was how Dino Tanjuatco, Clark International Airport president, explained to me why it was not possible to move all the cancelled flights at NAIA to Clark during APEC. But he said, they could have handled a good part of those flights if they were considered as an alternative airport.

While Clark has two 3,200-meter parallel runways equipped with various navigational aids and lighting facilities, I was told the distance between the two runways is alright for fighter jets, but not for commercial jetliners. Its single terminal with an annual capacity of four million passengers per year is also a problem.

They plan to construct a P7.2-billion terminal which was much delayed. I visited Clark’s facilities in 2011 and was shown its expansion plans. But when Mar took over DOTC, he dillydallied on the plans, even neglecting to have members of the Clark Airport board appointed quickly so they could act on projects.

When Tanjuatco, a cousin of the President was appointed, hopes were high Clark would get the attention it deserves. It didn’t happen.

Business Mirror talks of a market study that indicates a potential market of about 6 million passengers within the catchment area of Clark comprising of Central and Northern Luzon and northern Metro Manila. It would be more practical for them to fly out of Clark. But the flights out of Clark are limited. So last year, 5-of the 6-million flew out of NAIA.

Other than PAL, maybe the budget airlines could be required to schedule half of their flights out of Clark. Actually, in many other countries, budget airlines fly out of secondary airports that also charge less than the primary airports. Ryan Air and Easy Jet in Europe use out-of-the-way airports but, passengers use them anyway because of cheap fares.

Right now, charter flights from South Korea are the main traffic in Clark. Middle Eastern airlines tried flying out of Clark but eventually gave up due to lack of passengers. Maybe if NAIA’s air traffic congestion worsens, as it most certainly will, foreign airlines will either move some flights to Clark or bypass us altogether.

We also have to emphasize the need to upgrade our provincial airports with all weather and night landing facilities. There is a crowding of daytime flights from these airports to NAIA because of a sunset limitation.

This means, the next administration will have to do a whole lot better than the current leadership of DOTC. Everything begins and ends with DOTC so far as airports or mass transit systems are concerned. Someone like Mar at the Palace and Abaya at DOTC will doom the country for the next six years, based on what we have seen over the last five years.

It will also help if government allowed private investors like San Miguel to do what DOTC cannot do. The unsolicited proposal of San Miguel to build a world class international airport in a reclaimed area in Manila Bay shouldn’t have been trashed outright.

While the San Miguel project will still take more than five years to realize, there is more confidence a private investor will move heaven and earth to get the project done quickly because time is money. Bureaucrats have no such incentive. Indeed, their incentive seems to be elsewhere, which probably explains why they said they do not want unsolicited bids like San Miguel’s.

The crisis at NAIA is already causing very serious problems, but the President is blind to it because a cousin is on top of NAIA. It will take a more decisive president, and that rules out Mar, to make the right moves on NAIA, Clark and everything else including MRT 3.

Cebu Mactan

Speaking of airports, I applaud the progress in the rehab of the old Mactan terminal by Megawide. Other than the aesthetic improvements, my FB friend Bernard Ong cites more:

After exit. There is a metered covered taxi area. Two queues – one for senior/disabled/pregnant, other one for regular riders. Aides take note of taxi plates for safety and give you a copy (in case you left item behind). Usual metered rate, no surcharge, no “taga”.

Contrast to NAIA where you choose between the overpriced exclusive transport provider, or take your risk with “white taxis” by going up to departure area with your bags.

I earlier doubted Megawide’s ability compared to its competitors in that PPP bid. But Megawide took the criticism as a challenge to prove me wrong. I like that because it is good for the country. In contrast, DOTC’s reaction has always been dedma.

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

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