Congestion even in air traffic

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - November 8, 2015 - 9:00am

There seems to be no end to controversies and scandals in government even as President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III and his team have barely eight months left before bowing out from office on June 30 next year. Known as a gun enthusiast who enjoys target-shooting as pastime, President Aquino is now trying to dodge issue on alleged “laglag-bala” modus operandi allegedly by a few unscrupulous personnel at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) engaged in “planting bullet” on unsuspecting passengers.

While this brouhaha on “laglag-bala” raged, the flight of 399 passengers on board Etihad EY424 was diverted to Clark International Airport (CIA) in Angeles City, Pampanga last Oct. 30. Reportedly due to airspace congestion at NAIA, they were flown to Clark where the passengers were ferried to Manila by bus early morning the next day.

This happened days before our country hosts this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ summit in Manila on Nov.18-19. At least 20 heads of APEC member-economies are flying here in Manila to attend it. The Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) has issued an advisory about “periodic temporary runway closures” at NAIA during the arrival and departure of APEC leaders.

The MIAA disclosed commercial flights from Nov. 16 to 20 will be available but may be subject to disruption, diversion or even cancellation. However, the cancellation of flights at NAIA was “the call of airlines,” the MIAA clarified. But do these airlines have a choice?

In fact, our flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) announced that at least 200 of their international and domestic flights were cancelled due to APEC. On top of that, I heard PAL will officially announce 150 additional flights to be cancelled now that APEC leaders have confirmed their arrival schedules. Cebu Pacific Air has canceled at least 260 flights over the same period.

This simply indicates how congested are Manila’s airspace and the carrying capacity of NAIA.

Notwithstanding these problems, President Aquino and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto –who is making a state visit here on the eve of the APEC summit – will witness the signing of an air service agreement (ASA) between the two countries. The Philippine-Mexico ASA seeks to tap the veritable travel markets in the Latin-American countries.

Speaking of ASA, there is a scheduled new round of negotiations between the Philippines and South Korea tomorrow and Tuesday (November 10 and 11) in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Industry players are most surprised why should there be re-negotiations when the existing capacity is not even fully utilized.

While President Aquino is trying to grapple with the “laglag-bala” controversy and airport congestion problems in the remaining days of his term, some officials of his administration, on the other hand, are reportedly in a mad rush to clinch some last-minute but highly suspicious deals.

The air service negotiations are usually spearheaded by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). Insiders from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) claimed the Palawan air talks were actually at the behest of the Department of Tourism (DoT) purportedly to push tourism numbers. Proof of which, CAB insiders noted, is undue drive by the DoT in setting the agenda and pace of air traffic negotiations.

This is quite understandable given DoT Secretary Ramon Jimenez’s tourism promotion campaign. It bears stressing, however, any new proposed ASA should have sound basis. For example, it must be based on actual, or reasonable projected demand. Also, it is industry standard any ASA must strike a delicate balance between the welfare of both passengers and local carriers.

However, the numbers being presented to us tell a different story. A close examination of CAB data indicates that Philippine and South Korean carriers have yet to fully utilize all the seat entitlements approved by both countries three years ago. Under the 2012 RP-Korea ASA, airlines of both countries can fly close to 60,000 seats per week. Or this roughly three million seats per year from Korea to any airport in the Philippines and vice versa.

Of that number, industry records show only 40,000 seats per week, or about two million seats a year are actually being used. This means close to a million seats, or about 100 flights per week that can be flown anytime by carriers of both countries remain unused.

If almost one-third of approved capacity is gathering dust, then why is there a rush to seal a new expanded deal with South Korea? One plausible explanation, as I gathered from industry leaders – based from their impression – is due to DoT’s failure to deliver on President Aquino’s very optimistic estimates of tourist arrivals growing ten-fold by the end of his six years in office.

From the original target of 10-million foreign visitors in 2016, the DoT had to downscale and settle for a more realistic 5.5 million tourists in 2015 – just slightly over half of its ambitious goal. Data from the DoT indicated that South Korea is the biggest source of foreign visitors to the Philippines. They account for close to a million tourist arrivals from January to August for this year alone.

But can Korean tourists fill the gap? And would beefing up capacity do the trick? Airline and tourism industry sources, however, don’t see it that way. Although utmost priority must be given to the country’s secondary gateways like Puerto Princesa, Clark, Cebu and Davao, there are fears the ASA negotiations in Puerto Princesa might just be another “poaching” ruse, or getting passengers there but entice them with incentives to proceed to their lucrative routes to US and Middle East to the detriment of our local carriers.

More than just a smokescreen, air traffic negotiations can also be a very lucrative proposition for some unscrupulous officials.

In the hands of the wrong people, air rights negotiations have been a known source of temptation and corruption. We should watch out against unscrupulous negotiators who want a quick buck in exchange for peddling air rights which form part of our country’s national patrimony.

Unless the current congestion in Manila’s premier gateway is resolved, there’s no rhyme or reason to add more air traffic in Manila whether from Korea or elsewhere.


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