Numbers Don’t Lie

The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) was declared the worst airport in the world from 2011 to 2013, according to a survey conducted by the travel website, the Guide to Sleeping in Airports. In 2014, it was adjudged the 4th worst. In 2015 and 2016, it was ranked the 8th and 5th worst airport in Asia, respectively. In 2016, it regained its crown as the worst airport all over again.

Throughout this period, the country’s principal gateway was managed by retired Major General Jose Angel Honrado, a former pilot and close security aide of both former Presidents Cory and Noynoy Aquino. As far as the Aquinos were concerned, Honrado’s loyalty was beyond reproach and his record of honesty was unquestionable. These were probably the reasons why he was made the General Manager of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA).

I was covering the NAIA beat at that time and witnessed Honrado in action. Honrado at NAIA was a classic case of giving the wrong job to the wrong person. The demands of the job were simply too big for him. The man had neither the competence nor understanding of the aviation industry to make timely and intelligent decisions, let alone lead NAIA towards being a half decent airport. Among many management errors, he spent little time inspecting operations as he preferred managing the entire airport remotely from his office. This separated him from realities on the ground. Worsening matters is that he managed MIAA with an iron fist and cocky haughtiness, refusing help from well-meaning people who wanted to contribute. Ineptitude and arrogance is a lethal combination. Suffice to say, his clumsy and detached management style were the reasons why NAIA became the nation’s embarrassment.

In 2016, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) was split into two, the Department of Communications (DOTr) and the Department of Information and Communication Technology (DICT). Respected businessman and former Clark Development Corp. CEO Arthur Tugade was named Secretary of the DOTr. One of his first acts as DOTr Secretary was to appoint Eddie V. Monreal as NAIA’s new General Manager.

Before his appointment as NAIA’s GM, Monreal was the Country Manager of Cathay Pacific. He was responsible for operating its Manila and Cebu hubs, both of which remained profitable throughout his 37 year stint. Monreal assumed his role in NAIA with the insights of an airline operator, passenger, and professional manger. This made all the difference. His knowledge of the aviation industry allowed him to hit the ground running — and run he had to. It will be recalled that the airport was getting untenable, what with inefficiencies left and right, the “tanim bala” (planted bullets) scam, poor maintenance, and personnel with low morale.

Its been three years since Monreal took the helm of the airport authority and it is now operating with relative efficiency. This is no small feat considering the airport is operating at 45% above its true capacity with most of its facilities having surpassed their useful lives.

In 2016, reforms considered “low hanging fruits” were done to improve passenger experience. New waiting benches were installed, baggage conveyor belts and air-conditioning systems were repaired, restrooms were expanded, and preventive maintenance practices were put in place. Entering the terminals became easier as most gates have been opened and equipped with X-Ray machines (there were only two X-Ray machines functioning in Terminal 1 before). The long-awaited closed circuit high resolution CCTV system was installed for better security management. More importantly, the “tanim bala” scam was solved.

From being the worst airport, it is now counted among 10 most improved in the world.

While the improvements are noteworthy, lets be honest, NAIA is still plagued with many problems, not the least of which is runway congestion and over-crowded terminals. To understand the reasons behind runway congestion, check out my column last week entitled, “The real reasons behind NAIA’s runway congestion.” Suffice to say that congestion is inevitable given that NAIA only has two runways with air traffic that necessitates four. The fact that the authorities are able to make it work is a feat in itself.

Last year, NAIA handled 293,981 aircraft movements, 45 million passengers and 738,698 tons of cargo. As mentioned earlier, this is already 45% more than the capacity it was built for. Believe it or not, the overstressed airport must still take on 20% more volume in the next three years or until Clark and the new Bulacan airports can absorb a portion of the air traffic.

Clark becomes operational in 2020 and San Miguel Corp.’s airport in Bulacan can come online in 2022, assuming it passes the Swiss challenge (the results of which will be announced on June 23) and other legalities.

airport dawn

Is Monreal preparing for the inevitable spike in air traffic? Lets put it this way… they are doing all they can within NAIA’s limitation of space and budget. From what I see, we can be sure that they are not ignoring the inevitable and leaving it up to the next administration to solve. They are working on it now.

Among the works already accomplished is the construction of a new rapid exit taxiway on runway 06/24. This will allow shorter times between aircraft movements on NAIA’s principal runway. Ageing aerobridges in Terminal 1 were replaced with brand new units. New apron lighting using LED lamps were installed in Terminal 2. Ageing baggage claim conveyors were replaced in Terminal 2 and the layout of the entire baggage collection hall is being reconfigured to accommodate more carousels. The rehabilitation of electrical facilities in the runways were also done.

Ongoing projects include the expansion of Terminal 2’s check-in hall which will soon include the arcade formerly used as a waiting area. The overlaying of both runways from asphalt to cement which will enable the runways to better handle the new generation of large aircrafts like the Boeing 777X. The repair and upgrade of taxiways.

In the pipeline is the long awaited rehabilitation of Terminal 1’s decrepit arrival area, greeters waiting area, and parking lot. This cannot come soon enough.

Last year, the MIAA received an upgrade of its ISO certification, from ISO 9001:2008 to ISO 9001:2015. This tells us that systems and processes have been standardized.

All these improvements are meant to have NAIA merely cope with the anticipated spike in volume. Make no mistake, however, conditions will get worse before they get better. NAIA will become increasingly crowded, increasingly busy, and, oftentimes, wrought with flight delays. We all have to brace ourselves for this. The reality is that past administrations have failed to build an airport with sufficient capacity to meet our current and future volume. Hence, we must make do with NAIA, however small and old it is.

Aviation analysts foresee air traffic to and from Manila to top 100 million passengers by 2027. Not even the combined capacity of NAIA and Clark can absorb this.

The only light at the end of the tunnel is San Miguel’s Bulacan airport. It is the airport with the size and scale to meet our needs and one that is ready for construction. Ramon Ang says that phase one of the airport, consisting of a passenger terminal and one runway, can be made operational before President Duterte’s term comes to an end.

This is why it is important for the DOTr and the DOF not to further delay San Miguel’s airport proposal. We can no longer afford to dilly-dally — construction must start now. To further delay it will have grave ramifications not only on the travelling public but on the entire economy.

Lest the DOTr, DOF, and NEDA be spoken in the same way we talk about Honrado today, they will do well to move forward with the San Miguel proposal with urgency.


Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.