Airport options, strategies

DEMAND AND SUPPLY By Boo Chanco

Last Wednesday, the Joint Foreign Chambers presented a rather comprehensive paper on what we should do to enable our airports to meet our needs and be competitive with other airports in the ASEAN region. As always, John Forbes and his Arangkada team delivered a fantastic job.

But, and it is an important but, the study is so all encompassing, full of details and policy options that it will overwhelm the bureaucrats into inaction. All the facts, figures and suggested strategies will cause our decision makers to yawn and file it away in one of their steel cabinets and conveniently forget.

It reminds me of similar studies prepared by JICA and other consultants that taxpayers here and abroad have paid dearly for, but have been largely wasted. Indeed, such studies just make our bureaucrats call for new studies so they can indefinitely postpone making decisions that can give us a new airport, a functioning rail system or a new highway.

I read through most of the interesting parts of the Arangkada airport paper. Extensive and comprehensive as it is, it failed to give a clear prescription for DOTr, the implementing agency. They suggested so many things to do but no priorities have been set in terms and language so clear a bureaucrat can’t deny not getting a clear path of action.

Some of the things the Arangkada airport paper recommended are so obviously needed and have been discussed publicly ad nauseam. Bureaucrats have heard it all before in one form or another and are bored by now.

 For example: decongestion and improvement of NAIA, (2) implementation of a multi-airport policy and system in the Greater Capital Region (GCR), (3) development of secondary international gateways and provincial airports, (4) modernization and strengthening of transport institutions, and (5) improvement of the business environment and travel facilitation programs.

We all know the folks at DOTr and even DOTC before them have been simulating work on many of the bits and pieces of policy reform and listing down air infrastructure requirements for our growing economy. But they just don’t have a total picture of what they want to achieve, by when and how.

The fact that DOTr announced postponement of the privatization of NAIA maintenance and operation shows some amount of policy confusion or even policy vacuum in the key implementing agency. Indeed, the reason for postponement, according to DOTr is to allow them to get a better appreciation of the entire picture of what they really want to do.

I suppose DOTr wants to be clear about their NAIA strategy. There has been some private sector interest to build an alternative to NAIA, with one from San Miguel at no cost or risk to the government.

But does government really want an alternative to NAIA? If they do, where should it be? And how fast can they have this new airport operating? NAIA is congested and we really do not have all that time to wait.

A new airport will take at least five years to construct from the day the go signal is given. Getting that go signal could take at least a year, maybe two years or more based on the bureaucracy’s track record. Completion will definitely be after President Duterte’s term. What do we do in the meantime to address NAIA congestion?

They need a strategy that will deliver something before 2022. Two things are at the heart of a doable strategy: a) a dual airport concept of NAIA and Clark operating side by side and b) focus on redeveloping NAIA based on the fact that it is already there and should be easier to bring it up to competitive standards than to build one from scratch on yet to be reclaimed land.

The proposals for alternatives to NAIA involve some amount of reclamation, a very large amount of reclamation in the case of the one that wants to use Sangley. That means they can only start building the airport after three to five years or longer. The project will definitely face a contentious environmental clearance process that will delay it considerably. Time is also needed to allow the reclaimed area to settle.

If the Duterte administration has political will and they claim they do, it makes more sense to expand NAIA by expropriating all the land needed to build another runway parallel to the one now used by the large jets.  A new terminal on that side is also needed to avoid having to cross the existing runway.

Use emergency power and pay market rate for expropriating the land to facilitate acquisition. That should enable early construction of both the new runway and the new terminal even before the reclamation projects can get started.

Then, vastly improve facilities in Clark. The French have spent a bundle on a study at our government’s request on how to upgrade Clark. Unfortunately, the same DOTC that requested the study decided to junk it after it was delivered. I understand a new study is being bid out, this time at our expense as taxpayers.

I don’t know how long that new study will take. We sure need to start building a new terminal and expand other vital facilities right now to attract more airlines to use Clark.

 Luckily, the private sector has expressed interest. I heard the Megawide GMR consortium that is now running Mactan has submitted a complete study and proposal to fix Clark.

I checked with Megawide and yes, they confirm submitting such a study and proposal to DOTr. But they have not heard from the bureaucrats at all. They want to do an unsolicited bid to speed up the process.

I suspect DOTr is delaying a response to Megawide because as is the case with NAIA, it still doesn’t know what to do about Clark. They also do not have a grand strategy about Clark. They also need to formalize a dual airport strategy with Clark and NAIA working to complement each other. Everything starts with that declaration.

 Related to the development of Clark and NAIA is the train connection. It need not be a high speed train that travels 300 kilometers per hour as in China’s High Speed Rail (HSR). A train that travels a maximum speed of 100 to 120 kilometers per hour can bring a passenger from Clark to NAIA or vice versa in an hour.

A one hour travel time will enhance the marketability of Clark, making it easier to convince more airlines to use Clark. The rail system will take time. In the meantime, speeding up the construction of the San Miguel connector road should alleviate the problem. Everything depends on how fast DOTr can process the details and make a decision to start the project.

One detail that is now begging for DOTr decision is who will get the rail project from Clark to NAIA. Will the Tutuban to Malolos rail be junked in favor of the more needed Clark to NAIA? There is only one PNR right of way that is ready to be used. Maybe a commuter train and a faster train can use the same tracks. It is just a matter of proper scheduling.

What the Arangkada paper needs is a good one page executive summary that clearly states the vision and the strategy and relegating the secondary options in some kind of appendix. The paper may be a good academic exercise but as I said, it overwhelms the bureaucrats to inaction.

I commiserate with DOTr Sec Art Tugade. He has to worry about day to day problems in his sector but must also have time to dream up a vision and a strategy that must be ready to go by the end of next month. Sec Art did say he would start rolling off projects by the end of the first quarter and that’s next month.

It is crunch time for decision making and the bureaucrats still seem confused on where to go and how to get there. Unfortunately, confusion is delaying any decision to proceed. Breaking ground on any of these DOTr projects will most likely be at the earliest next year, if we are extremely lucky.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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