IN a report released on Tuesday, the Fitch Group’s BMI Research noted with approval the prospects for airport development in the latter half of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term, predicting that the administration’s overall focus on infrastructure development beyond Metro Manila and growing air passenger numbers would encourage respectable growth in the Philippines’ air transport sector. This is one area where the government should seek to prove the predictions correct.
Infrastructure development, at least in terms of transportation infrastructure, should be guided by one simple principle, finding the best means to move people and goods efficiently. Among the various types of transport infrastructure – roads, railroads, seaports, and airports – the Philippines, being a collection of islands, is physically most suited to the latter two. Continuing development of the nation’s maritime transportation infrastructure is also important and should be a key priority, but airports, and the air transportation system as a whole, should be given no less importance and perhaps even a little more.
We need only look to our neighbor Indonesia for an example of how expanding air transportation can benefit the country. The air industry there began to develop in the late 1960s, but began to expand rapidly from the mid-1990s onward with the spread of the “low-cost carrier” trend that began in the US after that country’s air industry was deregulated in the late 1970s. Like the Philippines, Indonesia is an archipelago where the terrain of most of the individual islands is prohibitively challenging for the development of road or railroad networks.
The continuing development of smaller, more cost-efficient aircraft, high demand from a large, dispersed population, and a business environment that encourages competition has allowed the industry to grow rapidly, even, as the Asian Development Bank noted in an analysis a few years ago, through economic downturns like the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US that had a chilling effect on the global airline industry, and the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Although Indonesia’s industry does face some continuing challenges in expanding and improving facilities and improving air safety and regulation, the impact of air industry growth has been strongly positive for the country both economically and socially. Not only has it opened up travel within the country to the vast majority of the population, it has, perhaps more importantly, added multiple international links, allowing movement between distant parts of the country and the rest of the world without necessarily having to pass through the bottleneck of Jakarta.
With the expansion or replacement of Manila’s hopelessly outdated and overcrowded international airport having apparently turned into an endless debate, development of airports and related infrastructure in other areas of the country becomes even more important. There are already many projects either planned or under way: Among these the expansion of facilities in Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, Clark, Bacolod, and the Laguindingan Airport in Northern Mindanao; and new airports in Bicol and Bohol. That is a good start, but much more is needed. Some areas of the country, such as Northern Luzon, the Eastern Visayas, Northeastern Mindanao, and the ARMM have been overlooked in current expansion plans.
Beyond airport development, more consideration needs to be given to related infrastructure such as roads connecting airports to local population centers, and much more development is needed in improving the country’s regulatory and technical capacity to monitor and manage the air transport sector. Considering air transport infrastructure from a holistic perspective would advance development in several areas at once – which, after all, is the implicit aim of President Duterte’s 10-point socioeconomic agenda – much more so than the current model eliciting developers of one-off airport projects as public-private partnerships.