Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Terminal Case

I was glad to read the opinion column of Prof. Alex Magno yesterday in the Philippine Star. He brought up the issue of relocating the international and domestic airport of Manila to the former Clark Air Base. The Diosdado Macapagal International Airport is already there, but there are calls to make that place the main hub of air travel in the Philippines.

I've always thought that this idea should be a subject of great study by the government. I'm not a full advocate of it, but I never fail to bring it up whenever policy discussions on air services come up in my work, to stimulate exchange of ideas.

But let me play the role of an advocate this once, for the sake of an academic inquiry. For now, my belief will be "having Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City is a waste of prime realty and a danger to a densely populated area."

The area occupied by the 3 main terminals, an old terminal, and a terminal for cargo planes lie in the middle of a bustling city. Removing these terminals will leave space that can be used to lure foreign investment. The government can package the empty space as an area that can rival Makati's Central Business District and Ortigas as a center of commerce and a showcase of Philippine economic potential.

We can court foreign investors to set up companies in the area, with the aim of turning it into a financial district. Multinational companies can set up shop there, from which they can anchor their expansion efforts in the Southeast Asian region. Business Process Outsourcing can find another home there. This can include call centers, medical transcriptioning, back office services (i.e. accounting, legal, human resource), and animation studios. We can even use part of the space to build a world-class sporting arena, a modern museum, or a place to hold cultural or international events. This would provide significant employment opportunities for the people in the National Capital Region and neighboring provinces.

Look at how the former Fort Bonifacio area became an area that not only brought in business and employment but also added another tourist area in the metro. Okay, so maybe a lot of shenanigans happen there caused by the young crowd with disposable income who party a bit too much, but this place also provides plenty of employment for said young crowd looking for work after college.

I'm sure there will be a lot of Pasay residents who will complain that removing NAIA there is tantamount to killing them, as businesses centered on the airports will die. But this has to be done to allow new businesses with bigger payoffs for the country to flourish, and employment opportunities to spring up. Adaptation is a secret to success. Whatever will fill in the vacuum left by the airport is rife with opportunities that can be exploited by truly savvy businessmen.

People that say that moving the terminals is the end of the world don't think highly of themselves. Just look at the miracle that is Subic. I can imagine how many people's lives were affected when the Subic Bay Naval Base of the United States was booted out by the Philippine Senate. They could have also cried that it's the end of their world. But led by a stubborn man with a vision, then Olongapo City Mayor Richard Gordon, a masterpiece of economic and social planning was created. It is said that in Subic, "exports had averaged a billion dollars since 1997, jobs generated reached more than 60,000 which was twice the highest number of jobs available when Subic Bay was still a US naval base." If people think the success of Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority can't be duplicated, last time I checked, both the "Transformers" weren't occupying government positions and may wish to try.

As for the safety aspect, Prof. Magno said it best.

The runway is woefully obsolete. It is too small by current airport standards. It is too short to accommodate the new generation of long-haul planes.

Should any plane overshoot the runway, as it happened once before, its nose will stick into SLEX, blocking traffic flow in this major road artery. Should any plane break down on the runway, all comings and goings will ground to the halt. A single-runway air facility is like a one-lane street: any minor accident will result in complete shutdown.

There is no space available to extend the existing runway. Certainly, there is no way to build a second runway — which we need in the face of the rapid build-up in air traffic.

Wrapped around the runway are heavily populated residential and commercial areas. We all have to keep our fingers crossed all the time, hoping no major accident happens in this outdated air hub.

We are one of the very few major cities left with an airport right at the heart of town. Nearly everyone else moved their airports far away from the intensively populated areas. We are courting disaster by staying where we are.

Having an airport in Metro Manila is a dangerous gambit involving people's live. We're all playing Russian roulette. I can see planes landing and taking off from my former office. If I open the windows, I can hear the roar of jet engines. Imagine, if by some twist of fate, a jumbo jet crashes in Metro Manila, how many families, houses, and buildings will it take out? How many cars, roads, motorists, commuters, and pedestrians will it plow through? Are we really going to challenge Murphy's law for the hell of it?

Okay, you may be asking now, "But if I live in Metro Manila, I'll have to find a ride to and from Pampanga which would be expensive and take several hours of travel time." This will be where a major infrastructure project will come in. A high-speed rail transport system can be created that will link the airport in Clark to Manila. The airport can have an exit that connects to the train station, which is just within walking distance (they can even install a moving walkway for lazy ass people like me). Upon arriving in Manila, passengers arrive at a huge transport terminal where buses, jeeps, taxis, tricycles, pedicabs and whatnot are waiting to ferry passengers to their destinations. There, or course, should be a gigantic parking lot where families, friends, and the entire barangay can wait for their loved ones.

People who will be taking connecting flights shouldn't mind where the airport is located. Their main concern should be catching their next flight, whether they are headed to San Francisco or Cebu, D.C. or Davao. What will they miss? A glimpse of Pasay from the window of NAIA? This will even benefit, unintentionally, the people from the northern Luzon, who can just take a bus to their province.

I know that moving the international and domestic airport of Manila sounds like a crazy idea. We're so used to it. Change may be difficult, but there are great benefits to it if we do. In my travels abroad, I've always found it strange why other countries place their airports so far from their city. I realized that there was wisdom in what they do.

Prof. Magno was both hopeful and pragmatic about the idea of relocating the nation's main airports.
Billions of pesos in infra investments will be needed to feasibly transfer the bulk of air traffic to Clark. But those billions need not come from the public fund. We have perfected the build-operate-transfer scheme to finance investments in partnership with the private sector.

All we need now is a clear policy about where our main airport will be ten years down the road, when air passenger load will have doubled. It will take us at least five years to build the necessary infra to move out the principal air facility to Clark.

I think it would be an interesting thought that, if indeed converting NAIA into a district that will bring in employment, the place where young Filipino men and women might have left the country from to seek work abroad is the place that makes doing so unnecessary. The place where planes used to take off is where careers can take off. The place where jet engines once roared to power airplanes is now an engine that propels our economy.

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