Time to retire Naia
Chaos for almost 36 hours: What should have been the country’s main gateway for international and domestic air travel became a seething choke point for over a day and a half after a Xiamen Air jet veered off the runway while trying to land amid heavy rain.
The “runway excursion” resulted in major structural damage to the aircraft; worse, it disrupted operations of the main runway of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia), leaving only the much shorter “domestic” runway for smaller aircraft.
The mishap came just as people were gearing up for their weekend travel plans, and the results were predictable: bedlam for thousands of frustrated passengers in Manila and thousands more across the country and around the world, all of whom had to endure long flight delays or outright cancellations.
The economic impact will be substantial.
Around 70 local and international flights were cancelled. Add to that the loss of productive man-hours of thousands of stranded passengers, canceled bookings for accommodations, meetings and events that had to be abandoned, appointments missed, and extra fuel burned in heavy traffic both in the air and on the ground.
It could have been worse.
Had the aircraft in question been a wide-body airliner, it would have taken much longer to extricate it from the mud. Or had an aircraft obstructed the intersection of both Naia runways, the disruption would have been total.
And then there’s the safety aspect. Thankfully, no passengers of the Chinese airliner were hurt.
But it could easily have been a lot worse if the plane skidded just a little more to the left and ploughed into a residential area where people were asleep in their beds at midnight, only a few meters from the airport’s perimeter fence.
All these elements lead any rational observer to one inevitable conclusion: It’s time to retire Naia.
After seven decades in operation, the country’s busiest international airport is no longer up to international standards.
And it will surely be unable to cope with the future demands of a growing Philippine economy, just as it is incapable of fully meeting present ones.
The airport complex was meant to serve at most 31 million passengers a year; these days it strains under the tremendous load of 42 million passengers yearly, a figure projected to rise to 47 million by 2020.
At least two key members of President Duterte’s Cabinet — Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III — recognize the need for a new international airport and the eventual decommissioning of Naia.
There are also several proposals for a new aviation hub, among them: Improve facilities at Clark International Airport in Pampanga.
Clear the way for the country’s largest conglomerate, San Miguel Corp., to build a four-runway “aerotropolis” in Bulacan.
Or, allow the Cavite local government and its private partners to reclaim land from Manila Bay to enlarge the Sangley Point airport.
It should be easy for the government to decide which one would yield the most benefits in terms of least cost to taxpayers, maximum value for the economy, and the highest level of service and convenience for travelers. And it should decide fast.
Once the new airport is built, the 625-hectare Naia property can be transformed into a major real estate development that will raise billions in cash for the government, open up more opportunities for the private sector and, more importantly, improve the safety and wellbeing of thousands of residents living around the inherently unsafe airport.
To be sure, every presidential administration since the 1990s has envisioned moving the country’s premier aviation hub out of its present site and into a larger, more suitable location.
All attempts have failed, so far, because of bureaucratic inertia.
President Duterte, armed with his vaunted political will and political capital, should be able to clear the roadblocks in the public and private sectors — if his administration wants to.
Amid the clamor to ensure that last weekend’s fiasco will not be repeated, no solution will be as effective and game-changing as breaking ground on a new airport. The sooner, the better.
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