Numbers Don’t Lie

Through the peak summer months and especially during the Holy Week, social media sites were flooded with tirades about delayed flights, delayed landings and long waiting times in the taxiways resulting from NAIA’s runway congestion.

For those who don’t know any better, blame is pinned on the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) for sheer ineptitude. MIAA is the easy target. But as someone who has a bit of understanding of the aviation industry, I know that the cause of runway congestion is not so simplistic — it is in fact a confluence of multiple reasons. I recently looked deeper into the issue.

In the first place, we must recognize that runway management and aerospace traffic are handled by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), not by MIAA. MIAA’s jurisdiction is confined to land-side management which includes all operating systems within the airport terminal. But, yes, the operations of both CAAP and MIAA have an impact on the on-time performance of airlines.

So what causes runway congestion?

Runway traffic management at NAIA is governed by a system designed by the Airport Coordination of Australia (ACA). ACA is a private firm which was engaged by CAAP to optimize the operating capacities of both runways. ACA’s system calls for 40 movements (take-offs and landings) per hour for both runway 06/24, which services larger aircrafts, and the perpendicular runway 13/31, which services lighter aircrafts. The ACA plan specifies the time spaces between aircraft movements, which runway and exitways to use and which taxiways to traverse. It is a well crafted plan that serves as CAAP’s basis for its daily aircraft movement schedule.

Everything should work without a hitch if conditions were perfect. But the reality is that one untoward event can cause an escalating domino effect of delays throughout the day. There is never one reason for delays – it is always a combination of several causes. These are the most common:

Delays in the arrival of turn-around aircrafts. To maximize profits, most airlines deploy their planes to a particular destination several times a day. Theoretically, the time it takes between flights to clean, refuel and reload the aircraft is 45 minutes. The reality, however, is that some airlines allot only 20 to 25 minutes, just so they can squeeze another return flight for the day.

Should an airline be unable to meet its tight 25 minute turn-around time, its arrival back to NAIA would inevitably be delayed. This, in turn, will cause a ripple effect of delays for that particular leg throughout the day with night flights being the most severely affected. The situation could be avoided if the airline had back up aircrafts to assume the on-time schedule of the flight. Most airlines do not have such provisions.

Operational problems of airlines are another reason. It is not uncommon for airlines to wait for passengers caught in long cues in immigration or security. Neither is it uncommon for them to wait for substitute cabin crew when those originally scheduled for the flight are held up for whatever reason. Again, the late take off of one aircraft affects the subsequent flights scheduled for the day.

Lightning alerts and gusty winds also cause CAAP to temporarily close the runway. So do mishaps on the runway like the Xiamen Airline crash last year.

In runway management, there is such a thing as “flight separation” or the time it takes between one aircraft movement to the other. With the rapid runway exits now in place and the installation of the new Communications, Navigation, Surveillance / Air Traffic Management System (CNS/ATM), flight separation should be confined to no more than two and a half minutes. The reality is that this extends to three and a half minutes on some occasions as traffic controllers wait for aircrafts to completely steer clear of the runway.

General aviation is another cause. General aviation includes private jets of politicians, the armed forces and business tycoons as well as delivery flights containing light cargo. All general aviation flights have been diverted to Sangley since 2016. However, emergency situations cannot be avoided. There are instances where private planes, particularly that of government officials, must land in NAIA. MIAA claims that this happens only about two times a day.

The reasons for delays mentioned above are not unique to NAIA. They occur in all airports. The problem is that NAIA only has two runways to accommodate the entire load of aircraft movements while other airports have a third and fourth runway to serve as back-up. With a third runway, CAAP could easily re-channel take offs and landings to an alternative runway and avoid waiting times. Unfortunately, CAAP is constrained with the two runways that NAIA has.

Fact is, the over-stressed NAIA is already operating at 45% above its true capacity having processed 293,981 movements last year carrying 45.3 million passengers. The only solution is an entirely new airport to relieve the stress on NAIA. That is why San Miguel’s airport in Bulacan cannot come soon enough. But this is another story.

If disgruntled passengers must really lay blame, they should fault the Arroyo and Aquino administrations for not building an alternative airport soon enough to absorb Manila’s ever increasing air traffic. Both administrations have committed a sin of omission and we have to suffer the consequence as a result of it.

The inconvenience caused by the Holy Week rush has opened a Pandora’s box of issues against MIAA. For one, it was said that the reason for runway congestion was the damage on taxiway Charlie due to poor preventive maintenance and the prolonged digging at the edge of runway 06/24.

I looked into the matter and discovered that neither repairs were unforeseen nor done in haste. They were pre-programmed repair works that all parties, including the airlines, were fully cognizant of. The repair works did not delay flight movements at all. In the case of runway 06/24, the unaffected portion of the runway (its useable span) was still well within ICAO’s standards.

Repairs of runway 06/24 involves overlaying its surface with cement to absorb the weight of new generation heavy aircrafts. On the other hand, the repair of runway Charlie involved repaving a rut that appeared due to wear and tear. It would be a bigger sin of omission if MIAA ignored these maintenance needs altogether. Accidents could happen. If anything, we should appreciate MIAA‘s preventive timely maintenance practices.

It was also said that MIAA management is one characterized by unprofessionalism and patronage where those who cover-up the failures and omissions of the higher ups are insulated from sanctions while those who don’t are made to bear consequences. As someone who has covered the NAIA beat for nearly ten years, I can attest that this could not be further from the truth.

I count MIAA General Manager Ed Monreal to be a professional and expert in his field, what with 37 years experience in the airline industry. He is no lightweight and certainly more qualified than the GMs that preceded him. His working style is one more akin to an Ayala or San Miguel executive rather than a government bureaucrat. I have seen him in action during the Xiamen Air crash last year. He acted decisively, took charge and took responsibility.

Suffice to say that stupidity and ineptitude do not pass Monreal’s purview no matter how much one patronizes him. He is way too sophisticated to give in to flattery. He demands as much of his people as he does himself. I have spoken to his executives on many occasions and although they are driven hard, they appreciate Monreal’s purpose-driven style. He enjoys credibility amongst his people as he is both a hands-on manager and one fully aware of the aviation industry’s many complexities. A clueless political appointee he is not. Monreal is the real deal.

This is why I also find ludicrous the allegation that MIAA revokes take-off and landing slots from airlines should they refuse the corruption overtures of MIAA executives. It is absurd because MIAA has little sway on airline slotting. It is in fact the ACA, CAAP and Civil Aeronautics Board who approve the slotting. MIAA’s role is simply to make sure that there are terminal gates and baggage handling capacities available to handle the flight.

There is a standing rule, however, that should airlines not utilize 80% of their allowable slots, it will be taken away from them and awarded to other airlines who will actually use it. This is to make sure that the airport capacity is fully optimized.

There was also an assertion that MIAA executives have a monopoly of the white taxi franchise in the airport. It should be known that no such franchise exists. Operations of white taxis are open to the public. So this, too, is false.

I can understand how some people who have been inconvenienced by runway congestion can take their revenge on social media, radio, print or television with vile, vitriol and half-truths. But we must base our attacks on facts and the realities on the ground. Sure, MIAA has many shortcomings, but I stand in their defense because the allegations hurled against them are false and unfair.

Again, at the heart of our woes is the fact that NAIA has two runways with volume that necessitates four. The fact that the authorities are able to make it work is in itself an incredible challenge. Instead of spite, the airport authorities should be commended for not allowing NAIA to implode under its own weight.

On this corner next week, read about how MIAA is keeping the airport facility afloat despite its backbreaking volume.


Andrew J. Masigan is an economist