Who’s the better operator of airports?

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 - The Philippine Star

MILAN – By the time this comes out today, our flight would already be somewhere close to landing in Manila. For the first time in my plane trips, I was kind of looking forward to pass through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), particularly Terminal-3 located at the former Villamor Airbase in Pasay City. The Etihad flight we took is one of the international airlines earlier transferred from NAIA Terminal 1 to NAIA 3.

We passed through the Dubai International Airport for our flight to Switzerland and back to Manila. For the many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who come or transit in Dubai, they find it as passenger-friendly for reasons other than comfort and convenience of the airport facilities. This is because of the presence of hundreds of our OFWs who are also airport workers or employed at the many duty-free stores and restaurant establishments operating inside the terminal.

A survey conducted by “The Guide to Sleeping in Airports” on www.sleepinginairports.net reported last week the latest results of its opinion polls on the worst airports around the world. Among world travelers polled for this survey period, it showed less and less dissatisfaction for those who have passed through NAIA-1.

In Asia, NAIA-1 got slightly “improved” rating as it placed fourth, behind the Islamabad Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Pakistan which was rated as the worst airport in the world. Second worst was Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport in Saudi Arabia followed by Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport in Nepal.

But what brought about the better ranking? The survey cited: “Manila NAIA saw a slight improvement in its ranking as a result of increased positive votes for its Terminal 3.”

The survey conducted between September, 2013 and August, 2014 showed the ranking of NAIA-1 improving to fourth after three years at the top of worst airports lists. The voting in Sleeping in Airports was based on comfort of passengers, convenience, cleanliness and customer service.

The Cheat Sheet earlier this month voted NAIA-1 as the world’s worst airport, citing the airport staff being “impolite” to passengers and the long waiting time to be processed, presumably from immigration to customs and security checks in-between before one can get in and out of the airport area.

Sleeping In Airports described NAIA-1 as a dirty, crowded, noisy, extremely hot airport, not to mention not enough seats for even half of the people waiting. The Cheat Sheet, on the other hand, also cited the inability of NAIA-1 to accommodate passengers. It said NAIA-1 is designed to accommodate only six million passengers while an average of 32 million actually use its facilities each year.

One of the NAIA-1 problems is the poor air-conditioning system that is reportedly still being repaired up to now. Just a month ago, when we took our flight to China via NAIA-1, there were still many areas visibly undergoing rehabilitation. We sweated it out as we walked through the areas where the centralized air conditioning system was obviously not functioning. The air-conditioning system is being offset or compensated only by huge industrial fans posted at key areas where people queue.

The opinion survey, however, noted the government’s efforts to improve NAIA-1 and to decongest its operations by the transfer of several airlines to NAIA-3. This apparently influenced the voting in the survey that led to NAIA-1 moving to fourth place in the global ranking.

Is this one “downgrade” worth bragging about? Of course not. But signs of improvement in our country’s international gateway are better than none.

When we left Manila last week, we got to experience and see up close and personal the NAIA-3 for the first time. The controversial airport facility finally opened to full commercial operations only last month. After three Presidents and now, we’re in the last two years of the incumbent President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III, all gates of NAIA-3 are in full service.

Initially, only Cebu Pacific and about two other airlines were using it for domestic and regional flights. The other airlines opted to stay at NAIA-1 while Terminal 2 is exclusively for use of the Philippine Airlines as the country’s flag carrier.

It was impressive enough for me to see a much cleaner and wider departure area at NAIA-3. But it was a bit disappointing to discover that the walkalator remains non-functional up to now. Nonetheless, the NAIA-3 is indeed a much-improved version of NAIA Terminals 1 and 2.

But this bit of good news may be short-lived. This, after the Court of Appeals handed down its ruling that the government cannot exercise full ownership over the NAIA-3 unless it releases $371.43 million from escrow to developer Philippine International Air Terminals Company Inc. (Piatco) as its “just compensation” for this project.

Originally the NAIA-3 project was a Piatco joint venture with Fraport, AG of Germany but the Supreme Court nullified it for constitutional violation on 40% foreign ownership limit. Fraport sued the Philippine government for breach of contract before international arbitration court in Washington.

Fraport’s experience in doing business in the Philippines scared off many German investors since then. Fraport suit remains pending up to now. Despite this unresolved legal commercial dispute, Malacañang Palace trumpeted as successful President Aquino’s official visit to Germany a few weeks ago. We don’t know exactly if there was any behind-the-scene talks during the Aquino visit with Fraport, semi-government owned firm of Germany.

In a 21-page ruling on Oct. 10 but released to the public only last week, the 13th division of the appellate court voided the order of Pasay City regional trial court Branch 117 issued in October, 2011. In that voided order of the lower court, the government was required to deposit the amount in an escrow account and imposed conditions for its release. The CA granted the petition of Piatco and reversed the Pasay court ruling where the government must pay the developer a net just compensation amounting to $116,348,641.10.

Member firms of the Airline Operators Council (AOC) that were transferred to NAIA-3 are reportedly on a quandary as to who will now operate the airport terminal. This is because the CA decision effectively prevents the government from taking over NAIA-3.

The question is whether the NAIA-3 would still be under the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) – an attached agency under the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) – or Piatco that claims they are ready to operate the airport terminal.

Given the track record of incompetence and corruption in these government agencies, we need professional managers – not political appointees – who can better our country’s airports.


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