Lightning red alert
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 12, 2019 - 12:00am

Leaving Manila for Scotland on the night of May 30, my plane sat on the NAIA 3 runway for over an hour, waiting for clearance to take off.

Such delays can get quite uncomfortable. You’re not allowed to leave your seat or even lean back, and in-flight entertainment may be constantly disrupted by updates on the reason for the delay.

But it wasn’t my first delayed flight at the airport, and I know many people whose departures from NAIA have been delayed much longer, so I didn’t fret too much. Also, my Emirates flight made up for the delay, I guess by flying faster, and I arrived in Dubai right on schedule for my connecting flight to Glasgow.

Still, delays of about an hour seem to have become the norm at our country’s busiest airport. It can be dismaying when you are in an airport abroad and you hear on the public address system that a Manila-bound flight is delayed for departure because of problems at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

So I welcome President Duterte’s promise to find a solution to the flight delays at the NAIA within a month.

Duterte made the commitment following the flight delays and cancellations last Sunday, after a “red lightning alert” was issued by the weather bureau and flights were suspended by the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) from 6:40 to 9:15 in the evening.

I’ve never heard of that kind of alert. Yesterday the MIAA explained that the alert was meant to protect ground crew and other airport personnel working on the tarmac from being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm on Sunday night.

There have been too many reports in fact of people dying all over the country after being struck by lightning or being electrocuted by live electrical cables during heavy rains. But this is 2019. Aren’t there any available forms of protection for humans so airports can continue to function even in a thunderstorm?

In a surprise inspection at the NAIA, Duterte reportedly apologized to the passengers who were affected by the delays. That was when he promised to find a solution to the problem within a month.

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I have no idea what that solution might be. There has been a string of airport administrators, with hardly any change in the situation. Officials point to the limited runway capacity, with no room for expansion. But there are other crowded airports in the world, and yet they manage to stick to flight schedules.

There were reports some time ago that the NAIA administration would get expert advice from those managing London’s Heathrow International, which has a runway capacity that appears small for the world’s second busiest airport (after Dubai), but which manages to follow flight schedules.

Yet here we are, with flights still delayed for both takeoff and landing. Now passengers also have to worry about lightning alerts.

Last year I asked some industry players about the problems bedeviling the NAIA. Among their answers:

In this age, there are no international landings in our country’s premier airport from past midnight to 6 a.m. because of maintenance works.

The NAIA runway is not just limited, it’s also too short for the demands of international air traffic. Pilots call it a captain’s runway: lacking precision landing equipment at the NAIA, the pilot has to look for the runway instead of relying on automated guidance to be able to land.

The limited space is taken up by parked wide body jets, leaving little space for smaller short-haul jets.

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There have been some improvements in airports outside Metro Manila. There are no more goats and dogs crossing the runways of secondary airports. And most of our airports now have night landing capability.

The NAIA itself has improved; Terminal 3 in particular looks like a regular 21st century gateway. NAIA 2 needs to upgrade its air-conditioning. But all three terminals have better toilets, although there are still too few at NAIA 1 and 2. Internet connection is satisfactory. Immigration lines have become shorter, thanks to the hiring of additional personnel for outbound passengers and the installation of automated passport processing for arrivals.

I waited a long time to clear immigration at Glasgow International Airport. It needs an escalator for arrivals and walkalators or travelators. Its free WiFi kept telling me the connection wasn’t secure and I was blocked. But for a secondary airport (the main one is in the Scottish capital Edinburgh), it was good enough. Glasgow airport was large enough to accommodate my connecting flight from Dubai on the double-decker Airbus 380 – the world’s largest commercial plane. The NAIA runway cannot accommodate the A380, or the US military Lockheed C-5 Galaxy transport plane.

Airports are costly and our taxes are going mostly to the upkeep of our bloated bureaucracy, including nearly 300 members of the House of Representatives. We can’t afford to compete with Changi or Dubai International.

But we still have to compare our airport capacity with the best in the world. Airports provide a good gauge of national competitiveness and a country’s level of development. The perennial competitors for the honor of being the world’s best airport (as ranked by aviation industry players) are in our corner of the planet: South Korea’s Incheon International and Singapore’s Changi. Taiwan is closing in. Other neighbors are scrambling to catch up.

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Yesterday President Duterte said he wanted domestic flights diverted to Sangley Point in Cavite to decongest NAIA. The private jets can go there, too, although the owners with the right connections will likely get to keep their slots at the NAIA. More flights may also be diverted to Clark International Airport.

What else can be done? We’re waiting for flight management to improve. Duterte is said to be scouting for a new head of the MIAA and NAIA.

Someone who knows what to do when lightning strikes, without disrupting flights, will be most welcome. Anyone who can fix this mess deserves high office.

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