Worst
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno () - October 20, 2011 - 12:00am

This is not good news for those working so hard to bring up our tourist arrivals. The Manila International Airport is now the Worst Airport in the World.

Step aside, Mogadishu!

An influential travel blog recently rated our premiere air facility, the icon of the state of our nation’s infrastructure, the pits. Perhaps it is time for our tourism officials to make the best of a bad situation and offer the airport as an adventure in itself. The pitch could be along this line: Bored of bungee? Try landing in Manila.

The airport authorities, bless them, were quick to quarrel with the rating. Since the surveys were taken, said the airport manager, the toilets have been washed and the ragged carpet replaced. Arriving passengers no longer lose their phones (at least since Paris Hilton lost hers) and extortionists banished from the premises.

But what about the basic engineering and design issues?

The Manila airport has one substandard runway and four unconnected terminals, counting in the old domestic terminal. Five, actually, if we include the VIP terminal at Villamor.

In addition to regular commercial aircraft, the airstrip is also used by military craft. Along the apron, hangars shelter scores of small chartered planes, corporate jets and choppers of every variety. The carcasses of old aircraft are still littered on the sides.

That single runway now finds itself in the middle of a sprawling, chaotic megalopolis. Should a plane overshoot the runway, as had happened before, it plows into the SLEX. If, heaven forbid, pilot error happens, the plane will cut a path of destruction through middle class subdivisions to the east or the high-rise financial district to the north.

The approach to the runway from the west has now become a bird sanctuary, raising the perils of a bird strike. To the south are the thickly populated Cavite towns. On a queue, planes circle over tall mountains, where winds pushing up the slope could have unpredictable effects. Many years ago, a PAL plane crashed on the slopes of Antipolo while awaiting landing clearance.

As air traffic volume increases, the queues get longer. That means a lot more planes circling above a busy city, waiting for the opportunity to land on a short strip. Whenever the President flies (which has now become more frequent), the whole area is declared a no-fly zone.

This is the worst place for a busy airport to be.

All the world’s big cities have moved their airports out. Tokyo moved its airport from Haneda to Narita, Hong Kong built a spanking facility in the New Territories, Paris moved from Orly to Charles de Gaulle, Osaka built the costly Kansai facility in the middle of the sea.

In Bangkok, they built a modern airport outside the city. After only a few years, under Thaksin, they replaced that with an even more modern facility on the other side of the city.

Oligarchic interests conspired with lack of political will to keep our premiere air facility right where it should no longer be.

All the new terminals abroad accommodate huge passenger traffic and are linked to mass transport facilities. They are designed to be light and airy, with passenger convenience first in mind.

By contrast, NAIA Terminal 1 is heavy set and forbidding, as if it was an extension of the fortress at Intramuros. On disembarkation, one feels like entering a medieval dungeon. The lines at the immigrations counter are always long. There is no place to find a good meal upon arrival. The carousels are overworked. Beyond the customs area, there is chaos.

Terminal 2 is too small to be a single terminal that might have allowed the old one to be retired. It is located in a close that disables smooth traffic flow.

Terminal 3 is like a miniature version of the Frankfurt airport. From time to time, the ceilings fall. The rail connection to Terminal 2 was never built. The MRT airport loop was never built — and probably never will be. To this day, ownership of the facility is still in dispute.

There was a stray proposal from the LLDA, now likely dead and buried, to build a new runway in Taguig, protruding into the Laguna de Bay. That will require deep piling into the lakebed, approximating the cost of the Kansai airport. It does not solve all the other problems the old one has. Traffic will remain inaccessible and the flight path will still be over the city.

Besides, after Ondoy, we now know that what the lake needs is clearance of water obstruction. The proposed runway will add yet another obstruction. It will increase the possibility of flooding. Let’s just dredge that lake, please, and not add another structure on top of it.

Our best option at this point is to move our airport out to Clark. There are two US military grade runways there, long enough to take the largest long-haul aircraft there is. There is enough space there to build a truly integrated modern terminal. In the middle of a plain, there is a safer approach to the runway. There is enough apron space here to host aircraft maintenance facilities and make this a regional logistical hub.

Of course a light rail will have to be built to run from Clark to Balintawak. Otherwise, the NLEX will be overloaded. An airport check-in facility could be set up in Caloocan. Clark is no farther from the city than comparable airports abroad.

Moving the airport out of the city will be ambitious and capital-intensive. But that is what the PPP is for, isn’t it?

AIRPORT FACILITY HONG KONG IN BANGKOK KANSAI MANILA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT NEW TERRITORIES PARIS HILTON RUNWAY TERMINAL WHENEVER THE PRESIDENT
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