By Denise A. Valdez

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte on Monday evening ordered the Department of Transportation (DoTr) to immediately utilize the Danilo Atienza Air Base in Sangley Point, Cavite to help decongest the country’s main gateway, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

But the DoTr said it expects the Sangley airport to start handling general aviation flights by December.

In a text message Tuesday, Transportation Undersecretary for Aviation Manuel Antonio L. Tamayo told BusinessWorld the DoTr is almost done with the redevelopment of Sangley for non-commercial air transport, and the transfer of such flights to Cavite is scheduled before the end of the year.

When asked about the DoTr’s timeline to open the Sangley gateway, he said, “Dec. 2019. Runway 2,300 x 45 meters is done. It’s the pax (passenger) terminal, hangars, ramp and drainage we are working on.”

In a statement regarding the 38th Cabinet Meeting held Monday night, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said Mr. Duterte had expressed “dismay” at the NAIA operations after he conducted a surprise inspection at the Terminal 2 earlier that day.

“Transportation Secretary Arthur P. Tugade raised some operational concerns. To ease congestion at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the plan to transfer general aviation or domestic flights to Sangley Airbase… The President directed the operations in Sangley Point to start immediately,” he said.

Mr. Panelo added that Mr. Tugade reported there are ongoing tests of ferries that can carry passengers from Mall of Asia in Pasay City to Sangley Point in Cavite in just 18 to 24 minutes.

General aviation flights are non-commercial operations that cover charter, corporate, military and pilot training flights. Such operations commonly use light aircraft and involve fewer passengers versus commercial flights.

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) said the average number of general aviation flights flying out of NAIA monthly is at 3,000, comprised of 1,500 fixed wing aircraft and 1,500 helicopter-type aircraft.

Mr. Tamayo said DoTr will be transferring such flights from NAIA to Sangley by “as much as can be accommodated.”

Local airlines Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Cebu Pacific, however, said the DoTr decision will not affect their operations as both companies operate commercial flights.

PAL Spokesperson Cielo C. Villaluna said in a text message the company supports the government’s effort to decongest NAIA. “This is a step in the right direction, as it will benefit our country’s commercial aviation sector as a whole,” she said.

“We support efforts to improve NAIA and will work with the government to achieve this. Transferring General Aviation or private aircraft movements to Sangley will yield immediate positive results for NAIA,” Cebu Pacific Director for Corporate Communications Charo L. Lagamon said in a text message.

But the government is not discounting the possibility of using the Sangley gateway for commercial operations in the future, as the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) is reviewing a $10-billion proposal from the provincial government of Cavite which aims to add two extra runways to the Sangley air base to be used commercially.

For the Manila gateway, there is also an effort from a consortium of seven conglomerates to conduct a P102-billion, 15-year rehabilitation and expansion of NAIA, which the NEDA is also evaluating.

The consortium is backed by PAL Holdings, Inc. Chairman Lucio C. Tan through Asia’s Emerging Dragon Corp.; and Cebu Air, Inc.’s Lance Y. Gokongwei through JG Summit Holdings, Inc.

Other members of the consortium are Aboitiz InfraCapital, Inc.; AC Infrastructure Holdings Corp.; Alliance Global Group, Inc.; Filinvest Development Corp. and Metro Pacific Investments Corp.