WHEN PNoy steps down four months from now, his ‘daang matuwid’ administration leaves behind an outdated and sorely deficient tourism infrastructure caused by almost six years of inaction and neglect.
Addressing the opening ceremony of the Asean Tourism Forum last month, PNoy expressed eagerness at soon becoming a tourist “to experience on a more personal level what millions have already realized…” If he does, he will experience the many hardships local and foreign tourists go through when they come to or leave the Philippines.
A major headache is the current airport congestion. We experienced this first-hand during our recent trip abroad. Our Hong Kong-bound flight left the departure gate on time but we had to spend almost an hour on the NAIA tarmac waiting to be cleared for take-off.
Flight delays are becoming an all-too-common occurrence at the country’s premier airport. It’s no longer news when outbound flights are stuck on the tarmac for an hour or more.
Incoming flights are also are being affected by the congestion at NAIA. Today, it’s not unusual for inbound flights to be put into “holding” – a maneuver designed to delay an aircraft from landing – for 30 minutes or more.
The air traffic congestion at NAIA is bound to get much worse very soon after PNoy signed last month, Protocols 5 and 6 of the Multilateral Agreement in Air Services (MAAS) – or the Asean “open skies” agreement – allowing foreign (and Philippine) air carriers to fly an unlimited number of times to and beyond the capital cities of other Asean countries.
The MAAS refers to what the aviation industry regards as the unlimited third, fourth and fifth freedom rights. Unlimited third freedom is when an airline is able to fly from its home country to an airport in another country without need of prior inter-governmental approval. The fourth is when it flies back home. The fifth freedom involves an airline flying to an airport in country A (for example, the Philippines) and from there to country B (such as Thailand) before heading back to its home country (Singapore, for instance) – again without the need of inter-governmental approval.
As it is, NAIA is so congested that, insiders say, airport officials are unable to give additional “slots” to airline companies. In aviation lingo, each flight in or out is a “slot.” And for slot-controlled airports like NAIA, there are only a limited number of flights that are allowed to arrive or depart based on the amount of runway capacity.
The runway congestion at NAIA didn’t happen overnight. As far back as 2011, or a year after PNoy took over, transport officials already knew that air traffic congestion was “going beyond safe limits.” In fact, when Mar Roxas took over as DOTC secretary in 2012, he promised to adopt measures to ease the congestion at NAIA.
But for the past five years, not a single infrastructure project was implemented by the Aquino administration to address the airport congestion. Even the planned rapid exit taxiways (RETs) – or exit lanes to allow aircrafts to leave the runway at higher speeds – will only be bidded out in June.
Aside from flight delays, Filipino and foreign travelers also have to contend with other annoyances at the airport such as long lines at the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) payment counters.
With the growth of low-fare international flights, more and more tourists are booking online. The problem, however, is that tickets bought online do not include the travel tax so this has to be paid separately to TIEZA. From the travel tax levied on departing passengers alone, TIEZA generates a cash income of some P3.6-billion annually.
You would have thought that with that much money, former TIEZA chief operating officer Mark Lapid – who has held the post since 2008 until he resigned in September 2015 to run as senator under PNoy’s Liberal Party – would have found a way during his eight years in office to make travel tax payments easier. Well, apparently not.
Although the travel tax can supposedly be paid online, you need to have a credit card, and only a certain credit card: Visa. TIEZA does not accept any other credit card. And assuming you’re able to pay the travel tax online, you still have to print out the official receipt and bring it to the Travel Tax Verification Counter at the airport for validation, which means lining up at same TIEZA payment counter at the airport. This absurd procedure basically defeats the very purpose of paying the travel tax online, which is to skip the TIEZA line altogether.
With its massive cash pile, TIEZA could have easily set up an over-the-counter payment system with some top local banks at very little cost, just as many domestic airline companies do. Instead, the agency opted to “invest” hundreds of millions of pesos in a few chosen beautification and rehabilitation projects, which – some critics say – are more “rewarding.”
And tourism officials still can’t seem to figure out why they keep missing their visitor targets for the past five years? Duh!