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Stranded at Naia

/ 11:25 PM December 15, 2011

The plane crash that killed 13 people in Parañaque last Saturday has sent transportation officials scrambling not only to find the cause of the accident but also to come up with measures that would help prevent a recurrence of the tragedy.

Accident investigators have initially advanced the theory that the Beechcraft’s engine stopped either because the fuel was adulterated or because a block in the fuel line “starved” it of fuel. Either way air transportation authorities cannot escape blame for the tragedy. The fatal malfunction could only mean there was something wrong with the aircraft and it should not have been allowed to fly that day.

But who was supposed to make sure the plane was airworthy? The shocking answer is: nobody. Deputy Director General Daniel Dimagiba of the Civil Aeronautics Administration of the Philippines (CAAP) said he had been pushing for a spot check on the airworthiness of small aircraft before takeoff, but his proposal fell on deaf ears. This used to be standard practice before Alfonso Cusi took over the CAAP several years back, but it was not restored even under the new CAAP leadership—until tragedy struck last Saturday.


The crash, which killed 10 people on the ground and burned down 50 houses and damaged about 100 other shanties, has also led to the revival of an old proposal to clear the area near the Ninoy Aquino International Airport of informal settlers for their safety. This is a plan that should have been carried out years ago, although in this particular case proximity to the airport had little to do with the death toll. That small aircraft could have crashed on the ritziest subdivision as easily as it did on that Parañaque shantytown.

However, there are more sensible proposals being put forward in the wake of the country’s most serious air accident since a twin-engine Fokker plane crashed and killed 19 people in Manila Bay in November 2002. One is the transfer of general aviation operations, which cater to light aircraft, to Sangley Point in Cavite. The move there would declog runway traffic and enhance safety at the already overcrowded Naia.

However, the real solution to the many problems bugging the Naia, including safety concerns, congestion, sanitation and plain ugliness, is to move the international airport to Clark in Pampanga.  CAAP Director General Ramon Gutierrez said the transfer to Clark is necessary if the Philippines aims to improve its international safety rating. “We cannot improve our category rating because we lack the land area specified by international standards,” Gutierrez said, adding that he was hoping the latest accident would be an “eye-opener” for policymakers.

But policymakers have long seen the necessity and potentials of moving the international airport to Clark. As early as 1994 President Fidel V. Ramos issued an executive order making Clark the primary international gateway to the country. Later, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered the Department of Transportation and Communications to turn the facility into the country’s premier airport.

The Aquino administration, however, seems hesitant to embrace the idea completely. Instead of taking off from the executive orders of the two former presidents, it is approaching the project very cautiously. In October, Transportation Secretary Manuel Roxas II said the plan to move the international airport would depend on the success of the NorthRail Project and the privatization of Naia. He said the transfer “would not be successful without a fast train,” and so the government was working on the “reconfiguration” of the NorthRail to service Clark.  He also said the government hoped to raise $2.5 billion from the privatization of the 440-hectare Naia so that the proceeds from the sale could be used to finance the relocation to Clark.

If these are the conditions for the transfer of the international airport, it looks like it will never be done during the Aquino administration. The NorthRail project has been bogged down by problems for years even as its cost soared higher and higher.  And how can the government sell Naia while it is still being used? How long will it take to sell it when even the much smaller FTI compound is taking like forever to dispose of? Whatever happened to business tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan’s proposal to build the exact same projects Roxas wants the government to undertake on its own?

It seems that the airlines and their passengers will be stranded at Naia for many more years to come.  Or until a much bigger air tragedy happens.

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TAGS: Civil Aeronautics Administration of the Philippines (CAAP), NAIA 1, ninoy Aquino international airport
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