Although no longer labeled as the worst airport in the world, NAIA's infrastructural, managerial, and maintenance failures remain as areas for concern and improvement.
by Bianca Suarez
Last year, the four terminals of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) breached its annual maximum capacity of 35 million people. This comes as no surprise as new flight paths are regularly being introduced, such as the Istanbul-Manila route recently launched by Turkish Airlines.1 Despite increased passenger numbers and flights, the development of NAIA remains stagnant, with regularly delayed flights and subpar facilities. Although no longer labeled as the worst airport in the world, the prevalence of infrastructural, managerial, and maintenance failures remain as areas for concern and improvement.
An inconvenience and a hazard, the poor condition of NAIA poses serious threats to the country’s growing economy. Tourism, which contributed 8.2% to the country’s GDP in 20152, is one of the biggest sectors affected by the situation of NAIA. Jose E.B. Antonio, executive chairman and CEO of Century Properties Group Inc., emphasized the potential of the tourism sector to promote inclusive growth, but also identified it is constrained due to a lack of quality airports.3 The manufacturing industry is also heavily reliant on air cargo for maximum efficacy. For example, the semiconductor and electronics industry is currently the largest contributor to the country’s manufacturing sector and shows great potential for growth.4 However, its success relies on timely delivery of exports to manufacturers located abroad5 and the additional complications brought on by traffic calls for an airport closer to the factories in the CALABARZON (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon) region.6
During his presidential campaign, President Rodrigo Duterte promised to utilize other airports such as Clark, Cebu, Laoag, and Davao, as well as to build a new airport in Manila.7 In his first cabinet meeting, Duterte discussed the possibility of building a new airport in Sangley as previously suggested by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) or developing the necessary infrastructure that will make Clark International Airport (CIA) in Pampanga more accessible. Although nothing has been finalized, Duterte has reiterated his commitment to addressing the problem of congestion in NAIA.8
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the main issues that need to be addressed in NAIA are: safety concerns, infrastructure capacity, and management. Airlines have described NAIA as a “high-risk” airport due to poor air traffic mismanagement and irregular air traffic control protocols.10 The capacity and expansion limits for NAIA and the distance and underdevelopment of CIA are among the reasons listed by IATA that limits the ability of the government to address the problem. Lastly, IATA has acknowledged that with the increasing commercialization of air travel, the best managerial approach must be “economically motivated, cost-efficient, and customer-focused.”11
Several solutions have been proposed by field experts to help address the congestion in NAIA and solve the problems identified by IATA.
Although the possibility of constructing a new airport was discussed during Duterte’s first cabinet meeting, it will take at least a decade before the airport can open for public use.
Often viewed as the silver bullet to all airport woes, the popular proposal to build a new airport is not new. Two years ago, San Miguel Corporation (SMC) presented a plan for a $10 billion international airport along the Manila-Cavite coastal road. A misunderstanding between SMC and the government caused the project to be dropped in 2014,12 but, SMC president Ramon Ang announced last May that they would revive the proposal to the new administration and hope to work on it with Manny Paningilan’s group, Ayala, and Shoemart (SM).13
JICA also identified Sangley and Laguna de Bay as ideal locations for a new airport. The report estimates the new airport will take over ten years to build and cost roughly $10 billion with four runways and the capacity to accommodate 55 million passengers and 400,000 airplane movements a year.14 A previous proposal to build by Manila Bay has since been scrapped due to objections from the Philippine Ports Authority, which argued that a new airport would interrupt the shipping flow of the area.15
Although the possibility of constructing a new airport was discussed during Duterte’s first cabinet meeting16, it will take at least a decade before the airport can open for public use. With the expected increase of passengers and flight routes in NAIA, other steps must be taken to immediately address the congestion.
Dual airport system
In the same cabinet meeting, Duterte proposed to focus efforts on improving the roads that connect Manila to Clark.18 Regularly cited as one of the solutions to decongest NAIA, many industry players such as Philippine Airlines President Jaime Bautista have expressed their support for upgrading and utilizing other airports, especially the Clark International Airport (CIA).19 The dual airport system aims to decongest NAIA by redirecting passengers from Northern Manila and regions in the area to CIA. This proposal also hopes to ease the traffic woes of the inhabitants of Metro Manila.
Although this proposal gained support during the Aquino administration, plans failed to materialize. The distance of CIA has been identified as one of the deterrents preventing the implementation of the dual airport system. Without the necessary road network and a high-speed rail connecting the center of Metro Manila to CIA, minimum expected travel time would be roughly 1.5 hours.20
Lack of infrastructure has also been recognized as a problem with CIA. The construction of a second runway would be necessary to accommodate increased international traffic and commercial jets.21 Bautista has also identified the need for fuel facilities, airline ground handling, and maintenance.22
JICA is currently conducting a study to develop a master plan to decongest and utilize NAIA and CIA, respectively.23 However, experts note that CIA is too far from the industrial zones in the CALABARZON region that depend on daily air deliveries of materials. Therefore, the need to develop either NAIA or a new airport in Southern Luzon still persists.24
The construction of rapid exit taxiways is also amongst the recommendations to improve air traffic.
The development and improvement of NAIA is still among one of the suggestions to immediately address the situation. One infrastructural enhancement plan is the construction of an additional runway. Originally eyed as the solution for congestion in 2014, construction was stopped after Ruud Ummels, a Dutch airport expert hired by the DOTC, advised against it. Ummels reported that the construction of the third runway would disturb the regular operations of the main runway and require the costly expropriation of land around the area.25 He also cited safety and practicality concerns among his rationale behind his reservations.26
First introduced in 2012, the construction of rapid exit taxiways is also amongst the recommendations to improve air traffic.27 Currently, the taxiways of NAIA require the planes to slow down to make the 90 degree turn to get off the main runway. New ones would allow airplanes to veer off the main runway without slowing down and decrease the time needed in between landings.
The Philippine Private Partnership (PPP) Center proposed a Php 74.56 billion NAIA Development Project that aims to turn NAIA into a world-class airport with accompanying facilities, operations, and services. Despite receiving the endorsement of the NEDA Investment Coordination Committee in July 2016, former President Aquino failed to give the final approval for the PPP project before ending his term.28 They hope to find a bidder that can upgrade the terminals to comply with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards and overall improvement.29
Last year, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) completed upgrading the outdated and obsolete air traffic management system.30 Although DOTC has been commended for accomplishing the project that was originally initiated during the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, the underutilization of these tools due to the lack of training of air traffic controllers (ATCs) are of concern. Low pay and minimal benefits for ATCs in the country encourage many to seek better conditions abroad. The inability to compete on an international level has also discouraged the government from sending ATCs to other airports to gain experience and knowledge.31
Despite the current 40 movements per hour limit mentioned by Mar Roxas in 2012, an IATA study revealed that the current runway system could handle up to 70 movements per hour. The international organization credits the underutilization of the runways to inefficient runway use optimization. By decreasing the amount of time each aircraft spends on the runway, NAIA can easily increase the number to five to ten movements per hour.32
To immediately address the ATC problem, experts suggest outsourcing the services, provided the company absorbs current ATCs. This should bring world-class air traffic management to the country along with better pay and benefits for ATCs at minimal cost for the government.33
There is an alternative proposal to shift the management of NAIA out of MIAA and into those of a private organization. Ever since GMR Infrastructure and Megawide took over the management of the Mactan Cebu International Airport (MCIA), they have introduced new international routes through the airport and have upgraded the services and facilities in the terminal. Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) can also now have their permits processed in MCIA so that they no longer have to go through Manila. The profit-driven and customer-oriented approach of the private sector should drastically improve the conditions of NAIA.34
JICA also suggests regional development as a way to decongest the capital. By improving transportation facilities in different regions, more investors may look into moving their businesses from Metro Manila and its surrounding areas to other places in the Philippines. This should not only decongest NAIA, but help alleviate traffic and support nationwide economic growth.35 In order to accomplish this, the government will need to work on developing regional airports.
The success of the MCIA has encouraged the government to plan PPP proposals for the airports in Bohol, Laguindingan, Davao, Bacolod, and Iloilo.36 One key development needed in regional airports is the implementation of instrument flight rules (IFR).Currently, most airports only follow visual flight rules (VFR), which depend on clear weather conditions to guide the aircraft. By applying IFR in regional airports, flights will now be able to land and leave at night and during less desirable weather conditions, allowing the airlines to spread out their flights and decongest NAIA during daytime. Air traffic control towers will guide the pilots throughout their flight to help ensure their safe arrival. A shift to IFR would simply require an upgrade of equipment and training of staff.
All of the solutions listed here have been part of the airport discourse for years, but various issues such as mismanagement and lack of political will have prevented any of them from being implemented. MIAA efforts to improve the congestion over the years have been proven insufficient. The over capacity of NAIA, development restrictions to NAIA, and infrastructural constraints of CIA have highlighted the need to develop a new airport. However, the booming economy and current flight plans cannot wait 10 years for the new airport. Therefore, effective short-term solutions must be implanted for immediate results in the meantime. Developing regional airports to utilize IFR would give more flexibility to flight schedules and redirect flight routes out of NAIA.
Solving the congestion problem can no longer be delayed as the situation has only worsened over time and will continue to do so. The failure of past administrations to adequately respond to the issues forces the new Duterte administration to apply multi-layer solutions. Although the direction seems to be headed in the utilization of CIA, separate studies conducted by IATA and JICA show that this solution cannot be sustained in the long run. The congestion of NAIA must be fully analyzed and proper solutions need to be implemented.
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