Numbers Don’t Lie

How serious is NAIA’s congestion problem?
Consider this: The country’s principal gateway processed 42 million passengers last year, 11 million more than it was built for. In the next five years, air traffic is seen to reach a whopping 74 million passengers on the back of our strong economy.
With the completion of the new Clark airport terminal still several years away and San Miguel’s proposed Bulacan Aeropolis still waiting to break ground, NAIA will have no choice but to absorb the increased air traffic, ready or not.
NAIA has multiple problems but the most pressing of all is the lack of capacity, both in its four aging terminals and its two runways. It is referred to as landside and airside congestion, in aviation parlance.
Manila’s aero-complex was built in 1948 on a relatively small plot of land measuring 440 hectares. It has two airstrips built in a cross configuration in the shape of the letter “T.” The shorter airstrip, runway 13/31, was built for lighter airplanes, mostly for military use. The longer 06/24 runway was built for heavy passenger and cargo aircraft. Presently, both airstrips have a capacity of 40 movements (takeoffs and landings) per hour. Movements must increase to at least 55 per hour if NAIA is to cope with anticipated air traffic in the years to come.
Two consortiums have submitted unsolicited proposals to the Department of Transportation (DoTr) to rehabilitate NAIA and expand its landside and airside capacities. The first proposal came from a consortium composed of seven of the country’s largest conglomerates, collectively known as the NAIA Consortium. The second proposal was received from the Megawide and GMR Group, the operators of the Mactan Airport.
At the heart of the NAIA Consortium’s proposal is to build a third runway on reclaimed land on Manila Bay, perpendicular to Merville Village, Parañaque. Apart from environmental concerns, experts agree that the plan is fraught with numerous operational and legal complications.
An airstrip at the edge of Manila Bay will be more than three kilometers away from the nearest terminal, in this case, Terminal 1. This will make taxiing to and from the runaway a process that could take at least 20 minutes. Not only will it be inconvenient for passengers, it will uselessly expend valuable fuel of airlines, thereby increasing their operating cost.
The distance will also bring forth logistical problems for baggage handling, catering operations, and maintenance services.
Worse, in the event of emergencies like fire or emergency landings, the sheer distance of the runway will make carrying-out emergency protocols a slower process.
A third runway on Manila Bay will be out sight for air traffic controllers who operate from the existing air traffic control tower near terminal 2. A runway in Manila Bay will necessitate a second air traffic control tower, with a separate set of controllers. This posts safety hazards as having two sets of air traffic controllers increases the likelihood of transmitting conflicting orders to approaching and departing planes. Conflicting orders can cause catastrophic collisions.
There are legal implications too. To construct an independent runway with its own air traffic control tower and satellite terminal can be considered a separate airport altogether. This violates FAA rules. According to FAA policy, airports must be located at least 44 miles away from each other precisely because airspace sharing is a safety hazard. With this set-up, experts doubt if NAIA can ever obtain an FAA certification.
All these have caused the NAIA Consortium’s to back-track on their original plan.
The Megawide-GMR Group has an entirely different approach in solving NAIA’s airside congestion problem. Their plan revolves around maximizing the potentials of the two existing airstrips through a two-pronged strategy — infrastructure enhancements and the utilization of the latest systems in air traffic controls.
Infrastructure-wise, the Megawide-GMR Group intends to invest $3 billion to construct full length taxi lanes parallel to both runways, augmented by several rapid exit taxiways. The idea is to have aircraft exit the main runways at the soonest possible time allowing it be used by the next departing or arriving aircraft. The second runway will be extended as well.
As far as air traffic systems are concerned, the Megawide-GMR Group has engaged the MITRE Corporation as its principal advisor. MITRE will lend its expertise to efficiently management airway traffic flow from the time aircraft enter Philippine airspace to the time they fly out of it.
Not many people have heard of MITRE before. MITRE is an American company founded in 1958 by an act of the US Congress. Their mandate is to spearhead cutting edge research & development not only in the realm of aviation but also in defense and homeland security, among others.
Under MITRE’s wing is the Center for Advanced Aviation System Development (CAASD), a program sponsored by America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) itself. MITRE has been in partnership with the FAA for 55 years which is why it has become the world’s authority in advance aviation. In fact, more than 50 governments and airport authorities around the world defer to MITRE to solve complicated aviation problems and chart long term national aviation policies. Their clients include the Changi Airport Authority, the technical consultant of the NAIA Consortium.
MITRE specializes in modernizing and optimizing air traffic management systems. To do this, they manage every aspect of air traffic control — from what type of navigation, and surveillance systems are used to the training of traffic controllers in advanced traffic management protocols.
They are particularly known for using high-tech simulation tools and data analytics to solve complex problems. This is important since aircraft mix, airspace orientation and wind patterns are important considerations in airspace traffic management.
MITRE is working alongside the Megawide-GMR Group to plan and manage both the airside and landside traffic.
With all systems put in place, the group is confident that they can reach 60 movements per hour. It is not an impossible task. MITRE has done it before for the airports of Dallas Fort Worth, Memphis, Newark and a slew of others, all of whom operate with dual cross-configured runways like NAIA
The beauty of MITRE is that they create systems that take into consideration the conflicting interest of everyone involved in airport operations. This includes the traffic controllers, whose primary concern is safety; the airport operators, whose concern is capacity, cost, and efficiency; and the riding public, who consider painless, convenient travel as their prime consideration. They approach problems scientifically and holistically, which is why even the FAA occasionally defers to MITRE’s recommendations.
Meanwhile, complications brought about by a third runway on Manila Bay has compelled the NAIA Consortium to “tweak” their proposal.
In a press statement last month, the consortium said that it would relegate the construction of the third runway to the second phase of the rehabilitation plan, not in the first. Instead, phase one of the plan will focus on maximizing the capacity of the two existing runways.
In addition, they also spoke of their willingness to reduce their concession period from 35 years to as low as 15 years.
The tweaked version of the NAIA Consortium’s proposal echoes the technical plan proposed by the Megawide-GMR Group as well as its proposed term of concession. It can be deemed an admission that the plan submitted by the Megawide-GMR Group is superior in terms of its practicality, viability, and cost-effectiveness. This is why I am partial to it.
The DoTr will be evaluating both proposals in the next few months. The public should be vigilant to ensure that the DoTr assess both proposals based on their original forms. After all, it isn’t fair to evaluate the tweaked version of one proposal after it had cherry-picked the best facets of the competing proposal. Fairness should reign supreme so as not to mar the bidding process nor the reputation of the DoTr. This is a developing story and this corner will be closely watching how it unfolds.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.