THE Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) this week called on the government to get its act together and develop a clear policy with a plan to address the inadequacy of the nation’s air transportation infrastructure. It must begin, the business group said, with making a clear decision on the plan to build a new airport for Manila and develop Clark into a useful second international gateway.
Given that airports are one of the most complex and expensive infrastructure projects any government needs to consider, developing one, or even expanding or modifying an existing one tends to be a political hot potato, and takes years to complete. The Philippines has been further hampered by the absolute lack of policy continuity from one administration to the next; consider the fact that the government inherited the splendid facilities of Clark before it had even considered what it might do with them, and controversies that arose when it did attempt airport development in the form of what are now NAIA terminals 2 and 3.
All of that makes it understandable why the badly needed upgrade for the outdated and hopelessly congested NAIA never advances beyond the idle conversation stage. But knowing what the difficulties have been should ease the path toward a solution, particularly for a government that has sworn to ramp up infrastructure growth, and has somehow managed to convince everyone so far that it is actually serious about and capable of carrying it out.
In its statement on Tuesday, the PCCI made three key points. It cited the Philippines’ “strategic location” as being ideal to make the country an “international gateway,” suggested that the lack of adequate facilities was compromising safety, as well as driving tourist traffic to neighboring countries, and said that unsolicited proposals should be handled carefully to ensure transparency and fairness.
Those three points are a good basis for a perspective to guide a master plan for aviation infrastructure development, but they should be tempered by reality rather than gilded with aspirations.
In terms of the Philippines serving as an international gateway in a manner similar to Singapore, Dubai, or Atlanta, that is not a realistic goal. The Philippines’ location is only strategic in an air transport sense for routes between the north and east of mainland Asia to Australia and New Zealand, and the hub role is already adequately served by Hong Kong, Singapore, and to some extent, Taipei. Having a high capacity gateway to and from the Philippines is enough of an objective; this is, after all, a country of more than 100 million, and has a sufficient market of its own.
With that in mind, what becomes important in airport development here is connectivity by land, and by secondary air routes among Philippine destinations. Thus, road, rail and secondary airport development should all be priorities in any master plan.
The development of the secondary airport system also addresses many of the concerns about the overall safety of the Philippines’ increasingly crowded skies. Even though the country is no longer blacklisted by the US and the EU for inadequate regulation and safety oversight, the impression one gets when studying the air transport infrastructure here – or spending any amount of time on domestic flights around the country – is that it must be largely due to the grace of God that disasters are not frequent. One of the biggest needs is an expanded and upgraded control and communication system with an appropriate level of redundancy. In about two weeks’ time, everyone will appreciate how important that is when a major flight radar near Tagaytay is taken offline for servicing, which will affect hundreds of flights for several days.
Finally, the best approach to handling unsolicited airport project proposals is to not entertain them at all. While the construction and management of air transport infrastructure is probably better handled by the private sector, planning should be a broad undertaking that comprehensively addresses national interests. Unsolicited proposals, such as that being advanced by San Miguel Corp., unavoidably prioritize the interests of the project proponent, which may not be those of the nation, and lead to controversies like the one that kept the country from being able to use NAIA Terminal 3 for nearly 10 years after it was completed. San Miguel Corp., or any other concern making a similar pitch to the government, may in fact be the best company to build and manage a new airport, but that should be as a participant in a long-term national vision, not as a large-scale entrepreneur taking advantage of an opportunity to bend that vision to its own benefit.