Air connectivity
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 27, 2015 - 10:00am

As I usually do when I am abroad, I invited Czechs I met during my trip to their country to visit the Philippines.

A woman familiar with our country said she wanted to, and would do so – “once Lufthansa flies to the Philippines.”

I can’t blame her. It took me a grueling 20 hours to fly to Prague via Singapore and Frankfurt. Even if it was on Singapore Airlines, one of the world’s best, with the final leg to Prague on Lufthansa, it was an exhausting journey. The return trip was just as tiring, taking nearly 17 hours on Lufthansa and then Cathay Pacific through Munich and Hong Kong. I remember direct flights from Manila to Amsterdam or Frankfurt taking only an average of 14 hours.

Most direct flights between Manila and Europe stopped some years ago, with the last carrier pulling out in 2012. The Philippine taxes that ended the flights have since been scrapped, and the direct flights can be revived if there is sufficient traffic.

Manila-Prague flights will have to wait. There are only 500 Filipinos living in the Czech Republic, compared to about 200,000 in the UK and a similar number in Italy. But with the numerous Catholic churches and well-preserved medieval attractions in the Czech Republic, the country is a popular pilgrimage destination for Pinoys.

During my visit, I ran into Filipino tourists from California, Seattle, Qatar and Quezon City. The Church of the Infant Jesus of Prague, with its Sto. Niño icon said to be miraculous, is such a popular destination for Pinoy pilgrims the Filipino store in the city is located nearby.

The tourism direction can be reversed, but we will need a lot more work to entice Czechs and other European visitors, especially with the latest kidnapping of three foreigners and a Filipina from a popular resort island in Davao.

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In February 2012, Germany’s Lufthansa Technik opened a $30-million maintenance facility for the Airbus A380 double-deck giant aircraft at Villamor Airbase in Pasay City. But its parent company Deutsche Lufthansa, Europe’s largest carrier and operator of the airline, has yet to resume direct flights to Manila.

Lufthansa stopped its direct flights in 2008 for the same reasons that other carriers did – weakening passenger traffic compounded by the common carrier tax and 2.5 percent gross billing tax imposed by the Philippines. In 2012, the last European carrier still flying directly to the Philippines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, ended its Manila-Amsterdam flights.

Philippine carriers could not step in because they were banned by the European Commission in March 2010 over air safety concerns. In March 2013, President Aquino abolished the onerous taxes. By that time, the damage to Philippine tourism had been done, but better late than never.

Philippine Airlines was taken out of the EU blacklist and began flying directly to London later that year. Cebu Pacific was subsequently stricken off the blacklist but is still assessing passenger traffic to pick its first European destination. The EC lifted the ban on other Philippine carriers last June.

Direct flights will help, but airlines want to be assured of passengers. It has become a chicken-and-egg thing: which comes first, the travelers or the direct flights? South Koreans, for example, are among the world’s top travelers, so Czech Airlines, that country’s flag carrier, flies direct to Incheon International Airport. The non-stop Seoul-Prague flight takes 11 hours.

In our case, travelers from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa need additional come-ons to proceed to Manila from the main grouping of Southeast Asian countries.

Malaysia, which drew the greatest number of foreign tourists in Southeast Asia last year with over 27.4 million arrivals, benefits from being part of the Commonwealth, and yes, from having direct flights between Kuala Lumpur and European and other world capitals. Middle Eastern and North African travelers like the abundance of halal dining areas and Islamic culture in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Aside from the lack of air connectivity, our travel industry suffers from perceptions of high security risks for visitors. If the country’s investment grade is translating into real foreign direct investments, we may be able attract more travelers looking into business possibilities, who may at the same time become tourists. But we’re also lagging behind our Southeast Asian neighbors in terms of FDI.

At Frankfurt Airport, Europe’s third busiest, portable black cots where transiting passengers slept reminded me of one of the causes of European investors’ reluctance to put their money in the Philippines: the cots bore the name of the airport operator, German transport giant Fraport AG. The company’s litigation to recoup its investment in the NAIA Terminal 3 has dragged on for a decade.

The Philippines suffers from perceptions that tourists and investments alike are not safe in this country. This is aggravated by poor air connectivity.

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IMPROVING CAPABILITY: The chief of the Bureau of Fire Protection, Ariel Barayuga, sent me a letter prepared by BFP information head Renato Badong Marcial, reacting to my column on a fire that lasted about five hours and destroyed a house in Las Piñas on Sept. 15.

It was “an isolated case,” Marcial wrote as he outlined the efforts to upgrade the BFP’s firefighting capability.

“The BFP acknowledges the fact that there are still some challenges that have to be addressed in terms of equipment,” Marcial wrote. “That is why to ensure that every firefighter’s safety is given utmost concern, the BFP has already procured 7,643 fire coats, 6,280 fire trousers, 11,218 fire helmets, 9,459 fire gloves, 9,547 fire boots, and 848 breathing apparatus. Aside from this, we are already in the process of procuring 1,248 units of Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), 1,600 pieces of fire helmets, coats, trousers, boots and gloves.”

(The firefighters in Las Piñas did have the fire apparel in their trucks, but eyewitnesses saw firemen training hoses at the house wearing only t-shirts, without coats or masks.)

Marcial acknowledged that there are still 554 municipalities and one city – El Salvador in Misamis Oriental – without firefighting capability. The BFP, he wrote, has procured 469 fire trucks in addition to the existing 1,859 units, while fire stations are being upgraded. The BFP is asking for a bigger budget in 2016.

He wrote that the BFP is now “on track” toward achieving “our dream of becoming a prime and modernized fire protection agency… fueled by our sincere desire and dedication” to give the people “the best public safety services that they deserve.”


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