Flight of fantasy and reality

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

From my earliest memory of flying and to this day, a journey by air is filled with anticipation, excitement and wonder. Sharp angled Dakotas, triple tailed Super Constellations, quirky VC 10’s, and now a fleet of Airbuses have taken me to just about every part of the globe.  People dream of becoming flight attendants or pilots. One of the toughest career decisions I had to make just coming out of university was whether to accept a job offer from Britain’s biggest airline or become a banker. The heart said fly but the head said no. In truth, I have probably spent more time in the air than I ever imagined. Behind the fantasy of flight lies the reality of the challenges of travel.

The early history of aviation was written by adventurous people but soon, it was the heavy hand of government that both developed and choked the industry. A partnership between countries and business is essential to protect and serve the interests of passengers. But that does not mean that the state has to own airlines or airports. Loss making vanity flag carriers, marked by poor service, and ever changing names of airports, do little for the customer.

Both the Philippines and the UK no longer have state owned airlines. Airports in Britain are in the hands of the private sector, including foreign investors. Cebu Mactan airport is now following the commercial model.  Arup, a British company, has been selected as designer for Cebu. When PAL resumed flights to London Heathrow, I took their executives up the control tower to see how traffic in one of the world’s busiest airports was handled by a small team of controllers using sophisticated technology. The company, NATS, is able to move more aircraft per hour out of the two runways at Heathrow than Los Angeles with 4 runways. NATS is now working with NAIA to increase the number of flights.

The UK, with its stake in Airbus and as a supplier of components to Boeing, is one of the world leaders in the aerospace sector. An Airbus with Rolls Royce engines has over 60% UK content by value. B/E Aerospace, based in the UK and Batangas make the galley for Airbus. The Philippines has a hand in every meal served to passengers around the world. Cebu Pacific and PAL have nearly 100 Airbus planes in service and over 70 on order. The new A350, with its carbon body and wings, offers the prospect of better passenger experience and 25% savings in fuel costs.

Safety is hardwired into the culture of aviation. The new X-Ray equipment for baggage and scanners for passengers now used at NAIA by the airlines and the airport are from the British company, Smiths Detection.

The design of London Stansted was, at the time, the first ever airport tailored to the desired experience of passengers and not just the operators. Smooth and quick access from check in to the door of the plane and, on arrival, a straight path from the aircraft, through immigration and the baggage belts. You can experience British airport design in Singapore, Beijing, Hong Kong and many more destinations. At Heathrow, we face the same dilemma as Manila – build a new airport or add a runway. Meanwhile, all 5 terminal buildings in London’s gateway airport have been rebuilt, giving people an excellent experience including space for leisure and shopping. We are introducing some of our top airport experts to the bidders in the Philippines who want to operate regional airports. If we succeed, then you will have a chance to have a world class flying experience close to home.

The challenges for aviation are many. Expectations of standards of service are rising. More people want to travel. Some passengers will trade price for comfort. Others choose to enjoy the luxury of beds and fine in-flight dining. Legacy airports are a constraint. Aircraft fleet decisions have to forecast demand and make long term big money purchasing decisions. Manufacturers need to address passenger load, comfort and fuel efficiency. In all aspects of flying, Britain has proven capability and this is on offer to the Philippines.

We are also shaping the future of air travel. Aerospace engineers are working on a successor to Concorde for supersonic flight. Alternative sources of energy are being tested, including bio-fuels. Lighter carbon material is being created in labs in British universities. The challenge of making food and drink taste better in high altitude is occupying the minds of our gourmet chefs and scientists. Our fashion designers are working with airlines to revive the glamour of flying.

We can continue to marvel at the fantasy of flight and begin each journey with the same sense of excitement as our first.

* * *

(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador.)

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