Right tool for the job

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Marvin A. Tort


If you have car engine troubles, do you bring it to a vulcanizing shop? If you have leaky plumbing, do you call a mason to “cement” the job? Or, if you need to tighten a screw, do you get a hammer? I guess the answers to these questions are pretty obvious, right? Common sense dictates that you use the right tool for the work required.

Economics, in a way, can be seen in a similar light. A wise man I once knew remarked that even economics, to an extent, was common sense. No need to complicate concepts like buying low and selling high, or adjusting prices depending on supply and demand, or matching opportunity with need. Even an unschooled farmer will have the sense to sell his goods at the highest price.

And this brings me to one of the issues of the day: Manila’s airport congestion. My apologies if I oversimplify the issue, but this I may do only to show a point. I do not claim to be an expert in airport operations of flight management. However, I am a user or beneficiary of both, and I believe that to an extent, even end-users like me have a point of view.

To my mind, an airport is basically a place where aircraft can take off and land. In short, the runway is the meat, everything else is gravy. More than 20 years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the scenic town of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. The Fokker from Zamboanga City landed on the airstrip, dropped us off, picked up passengers, and then flew away. A runway and a small terminal were enough. Perhaps this may no longer be the case to date, but at the time, it was the right tool for the job.

Since after the war, from 1949 onwards, we have had two runways for all commercial flights, general aviation flights, as well as Air Force flights to and from the Manila airport. This was after international flights were moved to the Nichols Air Base area (now Villamor) from the Nielson Tower in what is now known as Ayala Triangle Gardens in Makati City.

Seventy years after, we still have only two runways in operation at the Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) — but now serving four passenger terminals and all civilian and military flights out of the metropolis. In 1949, the Philippine population was estimated at about 19.7 million. Now, it is about 108 million. In 2018, all terminals at NAIA reportedly handled a record-breaking annual passenger traffic of over 45 million.

What does “simple” economics tell us about this situation? Do we need more airport terminals? Yes. Do we need more efficient airport operations? Without doubt. But, do we need more runways? This, to me, is the real issue and should be the priority. NAIA desperately needs more runways and additional taxiways that are wide enough to allow for safe “wingtip to wingtip clearance” for the largest-capacity aircraft.

A third and fourth runway will help ease congestion at NAIA, but building them is easier said than done. Expropriation in Pasay or Paranaque cities, or reclamation at Manila Bay, will be difficult to pursue. But those are the only ways one can acquire more space for new runways. An option is to close NAIA, flatten the place, and build anew but making better use of space available. This will be difficult, painful, and perhaps unnecessary.

If we cannot build more runways at NAIA, which does not appear to be feasible at the moment, then we should decongest NAIA by looking for a nearby “third runway.” In the regard, I believe the government’s decision to tap the Atienza Air Base at Sangley Point in Cavite City for general aviation is a step in the right direction. By sea, the distance between NAIA and Sangley is about 10 kilometers. By land, it is about 30 kilometers.

Sangley actually has the potential to service commercial flights, but this will require “updating” the runway and building a new terminal as well as parking facilities. More planning is required for this. But while “converting” Sangley will also take time and resources, I believe this to be a more practical approach to “expansion” rather than “expanding” NAIA itself. For one, working on Sangley will not affect NAIA operations.

Sangley need not be fancy. Take the case of an aircraft carrier, which is a “floating airport” that consists mainly of a runway, hangars, and a control tower. Without an operating runway, or a damaged catapult, an aircraft carrier is effectively dead in the water. So, the runway is the most important element. “Have runway, can fly” should be the objective here.

I have been on the US Navy amphibious ship USS Bonhomme Richard. Sized about two-thirds of a regular aircraft carrier, the ship secures the Asian region with its load of helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft that take off and land on their own power, amphibious as well as armored vehicles, heavy equipment, and about 2,500 Navy crew members and a Marine expeditionary force.

The ship has a 15-bed intensive care unit and a 44-bed hospital ward. It feeds about 2,500 people with four meals daily. It runs on steam, with boilers running on the same jet fuel used on aircraft on board. The ship also has its own ability to recycle the condensation from its propulsion system and at the same generate potable water for drinking and cooking and for sanitation use, among others.

While offshore, the ship directs air traffic and flight operations. It caters to helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in need of servicing and refueling. In short, it is a floating airport that can be easily deployed to where there are deep enough waters, and from its belly it can deploy amphibious vehicles and landing craft for a beach landing. One can only imagine how efficient crew and operations must to effectively run a ship like the Richard.

This is not to say that Sangley can and should be operated as such. However, there are lessons to be learned from aircraft carriers and Landing Helicopter Docks or LHDs like the Richard. Building new airports, additional ones and not replacements, are necessary. But while new facilities are still to be built, improving existing operations will be crucial to running a “tight ship.”

The Sangley option is significant. Improving Clark airport will also be crucial. The Bulacan airport is the long-term option. Once Sangley and Clark are in order and Bulacan is operational, then long-term plans for NAIA can be put into effect. Meantime, we need to focus on providing transportation links to Cavite, Clark, and Bulacan from Metro Manila.

Of course, all these options will take time. And will come at a cost. Nobody but nobody, even the government, will build for free. Users like me should be prepared to pay fees for such efficiency, or must be ready to pay more in taxes. And while the government can borrow to fund these projects, we should always be conscious of the fact that a government loan today is a tax tomorrow.

To my mind, any “airport” can sufficiently operate even without a large, well-appointed terminal as long as it has enough runways for aircraft to safely but quickly takeoff and land. Much like an aircraft carrier. So, if this means that Sangley can be operated for commercial flights even in a spartan manner, then we should consider this.

Well-appointed terminals and lounges or even “tubes” can be foregone. Duty-free shopping and recreational areas can be dispensed with. Spartan accommodations will do, as long as we move people quickly and safely. Comfortable, airconditioned buses/coaches can be used to ferry people from NAIA to Sangley. On the bus, during the drive, passengers can already be processed by ambulant Immigration personnel.

Initial customs and security inspection of baggage can be done curbside at NAIA prior to riding the bus, and can be tagged as pre-inspected. Then they will be loaded into a separate truck or bus dedicated to air cargo. Baggage and cargo can be “reprocessed” on site before they are loaded on board. Upon arrival at Sangley, “processed” passengers disembark from the bus at the tarmac and get on stairs straight into the plane.

This is a far-fetched scenario. Perhaps an oversimplification, but not altogether impossible. But under the theory “have runway, will fly”, this approach for Sangley remains to be a “budget” option for passengers — and a government — that are willing to trade comfort and luxury for efficiency and a quick and safe way to fly.


Marvin A. Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council.