By Lara Climaco i FilAm Star Correspondent

Although appropriately contrite over the massive disruption caused by the 36-hour shutdown of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s (NAIA) main runway last month due to a disabled Xiamen aircraft, Transport Sec. Arthur Tugade defended how the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) responded to the crisis.

“What happened in NAIA was not unique. A similar incident happened in Thailand and it took them four days to extract the aircraft. In Nepal, it took them two days. This also happened in the United States of America, when a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 went off the taxiway and got stuck. It took them a good 24 hours. Madame Chair, it took us 36 hours. I won’t say fast enough but I’d like to believe that it was a reasonable time given the circumstances,” Tugade said August 29 during a Senate hearing on the runway mishap, addressing Sen. Grace Poe who chairs the committee on public services.

The crisis began August 16 a few minutes before midnight, when a Xiamen plane skidded on Runway 06/24, the main and only runway at NAIA that can accommodate wide-bodied aircraft. With only narrow-bodied aircraft able to take flight on the other functioning runway, passengers started overflowing at NAIA as flight disruptions escalated.

Overall, roughly 250,000 passengers were stranded, including many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) off to the Middle East. The runway mishap also had a domino effect on domestic and foreign airlines, which had to scramble with flight cancellations, re-bookings and providing accommodations and food to thousands of distressed passengers. The chaos was not confined to NAIA as passengers around the country, many of them OFWs with connecting flights at NAIA, were likewise stranded in provincial airports with little or no resources to leave the premises.

Amid calls for him and MIAA General Manager Eddie Monreal to resign over this incident, Tugade highlighted medium- to long-term solutions that would address the long-festering need for more airport capacity in Metro Manila. Aside from Clark International Airport, new airports contemplated in Bulacan and Sangley Point, Cavite will serve as Metro Manila gateways, he said. The Department of Transportation (DoTr) is targeting to finalize negotiations with project proponents before year end so that construction could start, including that with a super consortium seeking to rehabilitate NAIA, Tugade told senators at the hearing.

The new Bulacan airport is an unsolicited proposal from San Miguel Holdings Corp (SMHC). The US$14-billion project aims to build four parallel runways and a passenger terminal with an annual capacity of 100 million passengers. By 2021, one of the runways should be ready, Tugade said. However, the project is yet to receive final approval from the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board despite a go-ahead given last April 25.

Concerns raised by the NEDA and the Department of Finance on government risk and liability are stalling DoTr negotiations with SMHC on the concession agreement for the proposed airport. This proposal must be subjected to a Swiss challenge before it can officially start.

For the Sangley Point airport, which is currently a military base, the DoTr has posed no objection to the plan of the Cavite provincial government to develop the facility on its own.

NEDA Board approval must likewise be acquired for the project.

Meanwhile, Tugade revealed that the MIAA Board has approved the NAIA rehabilitation plan of the super consortium led by Aboitiz InfraCapital, which proposes to spend PHP 102 billion to raise the airport’s capacity to 65 million passengers within four years. The DoTr secretary said he had opposed the consortium’s proposed 30-year concession period, which has now been negotiated down to 15 years.

Among these options for Metro Manila, Clark International Airport presents the most immediate solution because the new terminal being built there is targeted for completion by June 2020. During last month’s crisis at NAIA, 43 flights were diverted to Clark, allowing 5,466 passengers to disembark and be ferried to Manila using 166 buses, according to Alexander Cauguiran, acting president and CEO of Clark International Airport.

Tugade also revealed that with targeted capacity for 8 to 10 million passengers, Clark’s new terminal will be supported by a China-funded rail link to Subic Airport. Construction of the rail link should start by next year’s first quarter and will be completed within 2.5 years. Subic Airport has not been operational since the exit of Fedex in 2009, but the DoTr is sprucing up its facilities so that it could eventually function in tandem with Clark.

“The use of these facilities will be incremental over the years as they are completed,” Tugade said at the hearing. “At the end of the day, we would like to be able to see a scenario and a landscape where the freedom of choice as to which airport to use (or) what aircraft to use lies on the passenger,” he added.

The government’s aviation roadmap also includes the night rating of 44 commercially operational airports throughout the country to be able to accommodate more flights.

“If you improve the airports in the provinces and in the regions, you will actually help the decongestion in Metro Manila,” Tugade said. “We are doing a program of action that is predicated not only on the requirements of present needs but also the requirements of future expectations,” he added, citing rising passenger and tourism traffic all around the country.

At various times during the hearing, senators expressed skepticism over grand plans to build new world-class airports, citing the decades-long delay in the development of Clark.

Tugade noted, however, the huge progress so far experienced in Clark with ongoing construction of a new terminal and a steady increase in air traffic. From only six to seven flights when the Duterte administration started in July 2016, domestic traffic has now been raised to more than 310 flights and international flights at a frequency of 130 flights per week using existing facilities at Clark. Last year, passenger traffic reached an all-time-high of 1.5 million at the airport, according to the DoTr.

Twenty provincial airports should have night rated capacity within two years and all 44 by the end of the Duterte administration, Tugade said. By October, the new Panglao International Airport is also expected to be inaugurated.

The Senate will conduct another hearing to determine why the government seems to be stalling on private sector proposals to develop the airport in Bulacan and to rehabilitate NAIA. Airlines will also be quizzed on their plans to improve passenger convenience.