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Turnoff from ‘Fun in PH’ reprised

02:16 AM January 06, 2015

A year ago my family and I went off to Bohol and thoroughly enjoyed our holiday. But what started sweet ended sour owing to our return that went awry (Opinion, 1/20/14).

After 11th-hour sightseeing of the earthquake-stricken northern towns on Jan. 1, 2014, we hurriedly proceeded to the Tagbilaran airport only to be told that our Philippine Airlines flight was cancelled due to a disabled aircraft since that morning. We tried rebooking but were advised to take the ferry the next day to Cebu so we could catch the evening flight to Manila.

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At the overnight hotel, at the waiting shed prior to boarding the ferry, and during the ferry ride itself, one couldn’t help hearing other people, especially foreign tourists, bemoaning the inconvenience and their messed-up international flight connections. A stark and painful contrast, indeed, to the gratifying experience they had in Bohol.

Nearly a year later something eerily similar happened, except that the sour note struck right at the start of our holiday. On Dec. 28, 2014, we had boarded the PAL plane and were all seated along with the rest of the passengers (almost half of them foreign tourists), when suddenly the pilot announced that the plane would be unable to fly to Tagbilaran owing to an AirAsia plane with a busted tire in the airport. We were advised to go on the next available plane to Cebu to catch the ferry to Tagbilaran. Which we did, like so many other passengers who, nonetheless, had to go through the tedious rigmarole of rebooking.

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However, on arrival in Cebu we learned that all ferry services to Bohol had been cancelled due to a still-potential Typhoon “Seniang.” Hoping that the typhoon would not materialize and we could proceed in a day or two, we waited the weather out, to no avail. After two days in Cebu, we decided to fly back to Manila but not after suffering another arduous

rebooking procedure that consumed about three hours. Imagine inanities from PAL ticketing staff like asking for a certification from the Coast Guard that ferry services were cancelled, or the office manager having to call Manila for authorization to rebook.

In the national scheme of things, these incidents may seem like trivial matters. But what’s not so trivial is that these represent a microcosm of the more general state of the Philippines’ transport ecosystem. (Behold retrospectively the recent Cebu Pacific protracted chaos at the airport’s Terminal 3!) What’s more, these are easily avoidable failures caused by plain human negligence, lack of a sense of urgency, and sheer administrative ineptness.

The foregone revenue for the industry is just one consideration. More costly, very likely, is global demonstration effect (i.e., the tarnished reputation of Philippine tourism) from such fiascoes.

In order not to repeatedly belie the bold slogan “It’s More Fun in the Philippines,” a number of doable remedies seem clear but bear stressing. One, rebooking ought to be made much simpler, if not ipso facto, and not made torturous as though passengers are at fault. Two, require airlines to bear the costs to passengers not only of accommodations and local transfers but also of inter-airline connections, not to mention moral damages.

Three, as an immediate solution to the incidents in Tagbilaran and similarly constrained airports, allow a second plane to be on the parking apron (even a third was permitted before with no untoward incident) to significantly reduce the probability of the airport becoming unserviceable again and again. Four, the near-term plan, they said a year ago, is to extend the apron for a second plane—obviously, a simple project—but to date there isn’t a ghost of it. Attention: Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP)! Five, require airlines to maintain a pool of technicians/mechanics and spare parts in at least the regional capital (Cebu in Central Visayas’ case) so the needed personnel can fly statim by helicopter, instead of coming from Manila on the next commercial flight.

Six, evidently, it would be to the best interest of the country, besides Bohol, if the long-delayed Panglao airport, which is among the government’s headline projects, gets underway soonest. Seven, the Departments of Transportation and Communications—specifically, the CAAP, Marina (Maritime Industry Authority), and Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board—of Tourism, and of Public Works and Highways, along with the airlines and other industries involved in sea and land conveyances, ought to agree to act together, to speak with one voice, and to look to achieving the country’s tourism full potential by ensuring passenger comfort and convenience.

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In sum, while it’s understandable that hard infrastructures gestate long, most of these points are essentially “soft infrastructure,” or services doable relatively quickly with genuine political will. Still, it’s time our leaders and policymakers were imbued with a strong sense of urgency and resolve to give a big push to the much-heralded PPPs (public-private partnership projects). These are obviously needed to move the economy onto a higher path of growth and poverty-reducing employment through tourism, manufacturing, and agro-industry—the vaunted sectors of the

government’s development strategy.

The pressure to catch up to global competition is ratcheting up, what with the Asean Economic Community in full swing by yearend. It’s time our patience and forbearance morphed into “virtuous impatience” and we avoided the turnoff: “What the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away.”

Ernesto M. Pernia ([email protected]) is professor emeritus of economics at the University of the Philippines and former lead economist at the Asian Development Bank.

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TAGS: air transport woes, column, Ernesto m. pernia, inept government, infrastructure mess
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