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Promising proposal

Publication Date : 27-05-2014


A traveler’s first impression of a country is usually made upon arrival at the airport. And our antiquated Ninoy Aquino International Airport provides a rather sad impression of the state of the country.

Nothing much has changed since the Philippines’ premier airport was tagged the world’s worst airport in 2011 by the travel website “The Guide to Sleeping in Airports.”

Occasions like the Philippines’ hosting of the World Economic Forum on East Asia last week simply move government officials and private executives to pine for “a world-class airport.” What greeted the WEF delegates—all eager to see what the favorable buzz on the Philippine economy was all about—was the congestion at the Naia, whose three terminals handled about 32 million passengers last year, above its intended capacity of 30 million.

There was a piece of interesting news two weeks ago: San Miguel Corp.’s presentation of a $10-billion plan to build for the government a brand-new airport that can reportedly beat those in Hong Kong and Singapore. SMC president Ramon S. Ang was quoted as saying that President Aquino was “happy” with the project.

The proposed airport, to be located on a stalled waterfront reclamation project along the Manila-Cavite Coastal Road, will cover the cities of Parañaque and Las Piñas. It will have four runways, each 3,600 meters long, and can accommodate as many as 250 plane takeoffs and landings an hour, dwarfing the Naia’s 40-an-hour capacity.

Ang also boasted that four Airbus 380 planes could land on the proposed airport at the same time. An important component of the project cost is an elevated toll road that will connect the airport to the Makati central business district.

But the grand plan is not guaranteed smooth sailing. For instance, Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya was heard saying that while the government was open to considering it, SMC’s proposal “will be an unsolicited proposal” which, while “not prohibited,” will be faced by “a bias of government against it.” According to Abaya, the government “tend[s] toward more open and transparent bids.”

Another hurdle is that some administration officials are batting instead for the upgrade of the Clark International Airport in Pampanga, which now serves as an alternative gateway to the Naia. Clark is more than an hour away north of Metro Manila, making it difficult to draw large international carriers, but officials have argued that installing a railway link from Clark to Makati or Fort Bonifacio CBD would solve the problem.

Abaya also said earlier that a reclamation project in Sangley was being considered as an alternative given the requirement that a new airport be located no more than 20 minutes away from Metro Manila.

“Initially, it was Laguna de Bay or Sangley. But Jica (Japan International Cooperation Agency) has firmed up its position on Sangley.” He noted that other private groups had offered to study Sangley as a potential location for a new international airport.

The development of new air gateways is crucial to serve a growing demand for air travel as tourism expands. In a 2011 study, the Jica said annual passenger forecasts for the greater capital region (National Capital Region and Regions 3 and 4A) will rise from about 50 million in 2020 to 106.7 million in 2040.

A modern airport will also help bring prestige to the Philippines, possibly landing it in the World Airport Awards—a most prestigious accolade for the airport industry, voted by customers in the largest, annual global airport customer satisfaction survey. The awards are based on nearly 13 million customer nominations across 110 nationalities of air travellers, and include 410 airports worldwide.

Skytrax, an international agency that conducts the survey, has announced that the best airport in Asia for 2014 is still Singapore’s Changi Airport; the next best are Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, the Hong Kong International Airport, Tokyo’s Haneda, the Beijing International Airport, and Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport.

The SMC proposal is promising. Early indications are that SM Investments Corp. of Henry Sy Sr. and the group of John Gokongwei are open to the idea of partnering with SMC for the project. This reminds us of Asia’s Emerging Dragon Corp., a consortium formed by the taipans during the Ramos administration to build a new terminal 3 at Naia. The government can study that experience and learn from it. Maybe this time the government will not bungle it.


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