Home » SCMAP Perspective » Forty-five Days

Two weeks ago, Pantaleon Alvarez, Speaker of the House of Representatives, is looking to force Philippine airlines to transfer all their domestic flights away from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and to Clark International Airport. He wants them to do so within 45 days, threatening the cancellation of their franchise to operated, which is granted to them by Congress, if they miss the deadline.


Well, that one came out of the blue. And, clearly, it’s something that cannot be accomplished within those 45 days, for several reasons.


One, it’s not that easy to transfer all domestic flights to Clark. Cebu Pacific boss Lance Gokongwei said as much during the congressional hearing where Alvarez made those remarks. It requires time to prepare and move. Airlines plan their flights months, if not years, in advance. There’s also the matter of transferring resources and staff to ensure satisfactory service. You can argue that you can do that in a month and a half —“kung gusto, may paraan; kung ayaw, may dahilan”—but it takes a longer time to train personnel and ensure a seamless transition service-wise. You can argue that you can transfer the existing staff at NAIA to Clark, but then you’ll have to deal with their housing and welfare—just ask the employees of the Department of Transportation.


Two, Clark isn’t ready—not yet. There are plans to expand it, sure, but work to finish the first terminal—allowing to accommodate up to eight million passengers annually—won’t be finished until 2020; construction of two more new terminals, not until 2025. According to statistics from the Manila International Airport Authority, three of NAIA’s terminals saw a total of 10,453,420 domestic passengers fly out, and 10,611,493 domestic passengers fly in, in 2017 alone. The majority of these passengers went through Terminal 3—perhaps a sign of Cebu Pacific’s dominance of the domestic market—but some went through Terminals 2 and 4, too. (Terminal 1 is exclusively for international flights.) Moving all that to Clark in 45 days is essentially moving NAIA’s current problems to an even smaller airport, albeit one with space to grow.


Three, the connections between Manila and Clark are minimal. The much-publicized high-speed rail link between the two cities isn’t there yet. There are at least two point-to-point bus routes from Manila to Clark— one coming from Quezon City; the other coming from NAIA, with a stop in Ortigas—but these cannot serve all domestic passengers as it stands now. And then there’s the matter of how all these passengers get to those P2P terminals. Manila’s transportation system just isn’t ready for that. I can’t even imagine how early I, a resident of Cavite, would have to wake up to go to Clark for a routine flight to Cebu.


Perhaps in the future, we can transfer all domestic flights to Clark. But then, we don’t even have a concrete vision of air travel serving Manila moving forward. Clark—long mooted as an alternative to NAIA—has been lost in the jumble of proposals to build a new air gateway for the country’s capital, what with Sangley Point and San Miguel Corporation’s aerotropolis in Bulacan (which might be an expensive mistake, as the government has suggested it cannot compel airlines to move their operations there once built) in the mix. The fact that we are only now looking to build public transportation serving NAIA says a lot about consecutive governments’ lack of vision. Some proponents are angling for a two-airport system, with both NAIA and Clark accepting international and domestic flights, the former serving southern Luzon and the latter serving the north, but the government remains non-committal in this regard.


Alvarez definitely has a vision, though. In the congressional hearing he claimed the Philippines is the only country where airports designed for international air traffic accommodates domestic flights, and vice versa, is allowed. It is a false and misleading claim. Take Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the main gateway to Malaysia: its two terminals and three runways serve roughly 48,083,000 total passengers, 12,546,000 of which are served by domestic flights. (And the experience certainly is better than NAIA, although I must admit KLIA2, which serves low-cost carriers, is pretty drab.) In fact, the world’s five busiest airports—Atlanta, Beijing Capital, Dubai International, Los Angeles and Tokyo Haneda—handle both domestic and international traffic. It’s not about whether an airport is designed for one kind of flight or another; it’s about what works best for passengers now and in the future.


Yes, NAIA is suffering from overcapacity, and it cannot expand any further, a problem of inner-city airports around the world. But moving all domestic flights to Clark at this point—in this short a timeframe, even! —will just shift the problems upward, if not make new problems altogether for both airports. It is encouraging that the Manila International Airport Authority’s latest proposal—to move all domestic flights currently at Terminal 3 to Terminal 2, while moving most international flights to the former—is on the table; more sensible, less disruptive.


Still, what the Philippines needs —and deserves—is a concrete, holistic and long-term plan for air travel (and cargo), one that does not just have international visitors’ first impressions in mind, but also the total experience and connectivity of every Filipino, whether that involves moving all domestic flights to Clark, or building a new airport altogether. But then, change for the sake of saying there is change—that is easier to do.


Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications executive of SCMAP. A former board director, he is also editor-in-chief of the organization’s official publication, Supply Chain Philippines. More information about SCMAP is available at scmap.org.


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