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Pitch dark

opinion / Editorial
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Editorial

Pitch dark

/ 12:40 AM April 07, 2016

Could the world’s worst airport sink any lower? A five-hour power outage at Terminal 3 of Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which began on Saturday night and lasted until the wee hours of Sunday, showed that it could.

The blackout was caused by the tripping of a Meralco main line and the failure of standby generators in the airport. As many as 82 mostly domestic flights were cancelled and 79 international flights delayed, stranding nearly 15,000 passengers.

Terminal 3 handles an average of 350 domestic and international flights daily, according to data from the Department of Transportation and Communications. The four terminals were designed for 17 million passengers annually, but overuse and outdated facilities have made flight delays and infrastructure mishaps commonplace. Planned new airports outside congested Metro Manila remain a pie in the sky.

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In the dark, sweating and exhausted passengers were forced to spend the night on the airport floor (a number of passengers complained later of having been robbed of their belongings); outside, long queues formed as the terminal gates were closed until power was restored. Such tribulations have again resurrected calls for the enactment of an airline passenger bill of rights to impose penalties not only on airlines but also on responsible government agencies.

With collapsing ceilings and floors, a leaking roof, smelly toilets, and a scandalous bullet-planting extortion scam, among others, the Philippines’ “premier” airport must surely be a source of national shame.  And being a traditional port of entry, it leaves a lasting—and often negative—first impression among our foreign guests.

In Japan, Korea and other civilized countries, officials involved in such national embarrassments resign their positions posthaste, or are sacked immediately, without prejudice to possible sanctions. But not here. The airport general manager, Jose Honrado, has endured throughout every mishap and scandal, blithely ignoring calls for him to resign and let others resolve extortion rackets, dilapidated facilities and shoddy services on his turf.

Transportation Secretary Jun Abaya, another “survivor” who seems to open his mouth only to shove his foot in, has a lot of explaining to do as well.  Like the perpetually late and defective MRT trains under his office, the airport remains perpetually stalled—a result of lackluster leadership and indifferent management style. What other crisis has to happen before Abaya, Honrado and their ilk are booted out? Is there such a dearth of skilled and dedicated managers that incompetent folk like them are still in office?

An engineer at the airport cited negligence as a fundamental factor in the blackout: The generator sets that should have run within a minute of the outage failed to do so, indicating that these were not as strictly maintained as these should. And a Meralco spokesperson confirmed that based on their assessment, “the power interruption was apparently due to problems in the airport’s internal electrical facilities.”

Shouldn’t fastidious monitoring and regular maintenance of equipment be the default mode in such critical facilities as an airport? In the first place, why doesn’t the airport have an uninterrupted power supply, an acknowledged necessity even in small private companies? Imagine how this fiasco, after the ignominy of the $81-million money laundering scandal, is playing out on the global stage. Those grandiose tourism plans become ridiculous when visitors to the Philippines can’t even be assured of a painless and comfortable passage through the airport. More fun?

Worse, the security implications of such an emergency situation begs the question: How will airport authorities cope should terrorists strike, like they did at the Brussels airport late last month? What oversight mechanisms are in place, and are personnel trained at all to handle crowds and emergency evacuation? What if criminal forces had taken advantage of the five-hour darkness?

With hardly any airport services to speak of, passengers now ask where their travel tax (P1,620) and terminal fee (P550) are going. In 2014 alone, the government collected P9.3 billion from Naia passengers and airlines. A senator has noted that out of this gross income, the Manila International Airport Authority posted a net profit of P3.06 billion. Why wasn’t this sizable profit plowed back in to improve airport facilities?

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A proper accounting is in order.

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TAGS: Meralco, Naia, ninoy Aquino international airport, power outage
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