AT the very end of last year, the Department of Transportation (DoTr) invited bids for the rehabilitation of the Danilo Atienza airbase at Sangley Point in Cavite City, a P553-million project that would convert the current facility into an airport suitable for use by smaller-sized commercial aircraft and general aviation. The project attracted the attention of about a dozen would-be developers, and is envisaged to be the first stage of a grand design that includes a major international airport and seaport.
The hare-brained scheme first appeared as a casual suggestion during the administration of BS Aquino 3rd. Being taken up seriously by Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade—the same guy who once suggested stringing a cable car system along Edsa could help reduce traffic—and the Duterte administration has not made it any less unrealistic and impractical.
The need for a replacement or comprehensive upgrade and expansion to the outdated and overcrowded Ninoy Aquino International Airport is obvious, and has been for years, but there are far too many obstacles to be overcome in making the Sangley Point plan a workable option. The overall plan has three basic parts: First, rehabilitating the existing airbase for use as a secondary airport, which has already been included in this year’s national budget; second, building an artificial island adjacent to Sangley Point to accommodate two large runways and the facilities needed for a proper international airport; and third, building one or two even larger artificial islands south of the airport to serve as a seaport for both cargo and passenger traffic.
The P553-million first stage of the project would only cover the work on the airfield itself. Sangley’s existing 2,400 meter-long runway is suitable for most general aviation aircraft, but may not be for many smaller commercial jets; the Airbus 319, for example, which is one of the smallest commonly used in this part of the world, has a sea-level takeoff length of 1,950 meters. Slightly larger aircraft like the Airbus 320, 321, or the Boeing 737 would have an even smaller safety margin; the most likely result, if Sangley was used as a regular airport, would be frequent diversions of flights to NAIA or Clark if weather conditions were even moderately unfavorable.
Another obvious problem with the existing airfield is space. The Atienza airbase is a small facility that cannot be expanded without a significant amount of land reclamation, and would be quickly filled to capacity with current general aviation and smaller commercial traffic (aircraft such as Cebu Pacific’s ATR-72, or the BAE-146 small jets used by boutique carrier SkyJet).
The most glaring flaw in the proposal is a complete lack of appreciation of just how inaccessible Sangley is from the civilized world. The only road access from Manila as of now is via the Cavitex, which ends in Kawit; a several kilometer stretch of the badly congested Antero Soriano Highway; a single access road along the narrow isthmus connecting Cavite City to the mainland—at one point, the strip of land is only 40 meters wide—and an indirect route across densely packed Cavite City itself.
The solution that has been offered is the construction of another highway on a causeway connecting the tip of Sangley Point to the bay shore somewhere in Parañaque, but that is not part of the P553-million project package.
And even if it were, the wisdom of such an arrangement is questionable. The Cavitex has a causeway section several kilometers in length, but still considerably shorter than that proposed for the Sangley connector. Even though it has only been in use for a few years (that section was opened in 2011), it is already undergoing noticeable subsidence, with the road providing an uncomfortably bumpy ride as it settles unevenly.
For all the reassurances of advocates of land reclamation, virtually no project of that nature can avoid that problem of instability entirely. Osaka’s Kansai Airport, which is built on an artificial island, requires constant maintenance to keep it from sinking back into the sea. Closer to home, we can see the same problems not only on the Cavitex, but in the reclaimed areas around the Mall of Asia; one visible sign is the unevenness of the paving blocks in the parking areas on the north side of the mall, and it is widely reported that the basement of the church built on the mall’s south side suffers from frequent (some say constant) basement flooding.
While the Duterte administration’s stated goal to boost infrastructure development has been welcomed by nearly all quarters, what won’t be met with the same sort of generous approval are failed projects that waste time and money. If the administration persists in pushing the Sangley Point airport project, it is virtually certain to become one of those.