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Airport congestion and options to decongest NAIA

September 2012
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Airport congestion refers to two things – congestion at the passenger terminal and congestion at the runway(s). The first may be found in several areas of an airport terminal. Among these areas are at the check-in counters, the immigration counters, customs and the baggage claim counters. Congestion may also refer to the areas allotted to well-wishers although depending on the terminal layout or design, these can be integrated with the check-in or arrival areas. The second concerns aircraft take-offs and landings, and queuing is present both on the ground and in the air. Congestion on the ground can be observed at the end of a runway from where aircraft may be queued according to air traffic control. Congestion in the air is observed in the form of aircraft circling the vicinity of the airport at various designated distances (radius) and altitudes.

Congestion of the first kind is a given at most major airports in the Philippines especially for international flights where security is tighter and there are immigration and customs processes that passengers need to go through. In most cases including domestic flights, airports are usually congested due to the well-wishers taking passengers to the airport or welcoming the same as they arrive. It is not uncommon to see jeepney-loads or tricycle-loads of well-wishers at Philippine airports as it is customary to take relatives or friends (hatid) to the airport or fetch (sundo) people at the terminal

The second type of congestion hogged the headlines earlier this year and during the summer months of April and May when take-off and arrival delays plagued aircraft at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Some flights were even cancelled, causing much headaches for passengers and particularly those with connecting flights both for domestic and international destinations. The culprit, technically, seems to be the limited capacities of NAIA’s intersecting runways. Some critics, however, have pointed out that the airlines should share part of the blame for having schedules packed during the day times and offering so many promos. While they have a poin there in as far as scheduling is concerned, one can’t blame airlines from offering such as day flights are more attractive to passengers.

Aircraft queued along the taxiway leading to NAIA’s main runway

A newly arrived plane cuts into the  queued along the taxiway towards the eastern end of NAIA’s main runway

There are currently several options to decongest the airport in Manila. Many of these are actually proposals that are impractical if not too expensive. One option is to transfer international operations to Clark, which is about 220 kilometers from NAIA or 200 kilometers from Quezon City via the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). It seems to be the most viable solution and has been compared with the location of other international airports like Narita and Suvarnabhumi, which are outside the metropolitan areas. The thing here is that there needs to be a good link between the airport and the metropolis, which presumably generates much of the demand for the airport. So far, there is already the NLEX for road transport and it should not take so long for someone to travel from, say, Quezon City to Clark. Meanwhile, a rail link has taken so much time in the planning (or procrastinating?) stage that it seems more and more that the Northrail will never become a reality in the foreseeable future.

Two other options have been put forward recently, one by a major corporation that has now expanded its portfolio to include infrastructure, particularly on transportation, and another by a consortium that has developed reclaimed areas along Manila Bay. The head executive of the San Miguel Corporation, which now controls Philippine Airlines, announced plans to build their own airport, initially likely to be somewhere in the province of Bulacan, which is just north of Metro Manila and a shorter distance away compared to Pampanga, which hosts Clark. No details were given making a lot of interested parties including airport aficionados think about which areas in Bulacan are viable and spacious enough to host an airport of international standards. More recent is the idea for the development of the Sangley Point airport that will require reclamation and still another airport link towards the reclaimed areas that include PAGCOR City and the SM MOA. This last proposal seems to be morphing into something that San Miguel is said to be considering based on at least one report that came out today. I think the bottomline here, which ever option is taken, is that we need to have a modern airport that will be able to handle current and projected passengers and freight given our aspirations for commerce and tourism plus the fact that more and more Filipinos are traveling given the OFWs abroad. Decisions will have to be made and government should have a say here considering it is a major piece of infrastructure being considered. One opinion is that we simply cannot rely on the private sector to decide on this and such decisions need to be guided based on the public interest and good.

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