Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Should we give up on Ninoy Aquino?

Give up on the hero? No! the international airport (NAIA) that is. The recent spate of flight diversions, cancellations and delays have brought into attention the state of the Philippines' foremost international gateway and domestic flight hub. It also has brought more attention to changes in our climate patterns. How come we still haven't felt much of the monsoon?

The Ninoy Aquino International Airport now handles 24.1 million passengers annually with 205K aircraft movements. The airport has 4 terminals but it has only two runways (one 2.25 km long and the other 3.73 km long). That the airport has only two runways and has no room for expansion places a limit on future air traffic growth. All airport experts agree that the airport is now in a state of air traffic and passenger congestion. Terminal 1 was designed only for 4.5 M passengers a year. Terminal 2 (used exclusively by PAL) has a 9.5 M capacity, Terminal 3 (used by Cebu Pacific and AirPhilExpress) has a 13 M capacity. The old Domestic terminal (used by Zest Air and other smaller carriers) has a capacity of 1 M. So let's do the math (4.5M+9.5M+13M+1M= 28 M). While our sum is 4 M than the present capacity, let us not forget that Terminal 3 is underutilized due to legal problems on which investor should operate it.

Even if there is a 4M additional capacity, the airport reports an 11.4% annual growth in passenger movements. At this rate the whole airport would exceed its maximum capacity within 2 two years or by 2012 at the earliest.

The Noynoy Aquino administration is therefore faced with the tough decision on what to do with the airport. If the airport can no longer take additional capacity without endangering passenger safety, this would adversely impact the country's economy since it is the capital city that will suffer.

And passengers have noticed this as many of you who regularly travel. Coming in from Iloilo and other points south, on several instances the plane I was on had to do a holding pattern over Mindoro since the airport was congested. In June, the conking out of the VOR landing system caused 30 flights to be diverted to Clark (DMIA) and to Cebu's Mactan International. In many cases, passengers were not allowed to disembark and were stuck in their planes for hours.

The problem is made worse by increasing haze (pollution related) and the afternoon thunderstorms over Manila. Those of you who take the early morning flights would have noted the thick haze that makes it almost impossible for window seat fans to see buildings and other things of interest on the ground.

Airport authorities have complained that there was no wind to blow the haze away. This month being July, the "habagat" or southwest monsoon should be strong and consistent enough to bring much needed rain and blow this haze away. But we have hardly had a whiff of the habagat but just the ICTZ hovering over the city. Sailors call this weather system with the best word "doldrums". The hot air just rises vertically and not blow horizontally as what sailors of the olden days in their sailing ships would have wanted. The ICTZ also generates the afternoon thunderstorms which pilots avoid.

The delay of the monsoons in this part of the world and the typhoons that bring them in is believed to be a result of a post-El Nino climate phenomenon.

The government and probably the airlines should commission more research on the pollution climatology and microclimate of Metro Manila. Could it be that the airport is now the site of dangerous and now frequent microclimate events such as intense thunderstorms? Is the airport now subject to more haze days?

As for transferring most of the passenger load to Clark, while that airport has suitable parallel runways (it was a designated alternate landing site for the US Space Shuttle), the terminal can handle only up to 5 M passengers a year. The upgrade and addition of additional terminals can bring these up to 7 M a year although the master plan envisions a maximum of 80M capacity by 2025. In 2009, the airport handled 0.6 M passengers.

While there is the NLEX, the airport at 80 km from Manila is quite far. In contrast Hong Kong's Chep Lap Kok airport is only 40 km from Kowloon. To make the airport attractive for Metro Manila citizens, a high speed railway should be constructed and linked with the city's MRT/LRT systems, buses and taxis. There should be a terminal in the city with fast and reliable transfers to the airport. As of now, the fastest way to get to Clark is by bus or by car and that could take more than an hour. A bus trip from Kowloon to Hong Kong's airport takes only 30 minutes. It is faster to take the train.

Should we give up on NAIA? I'd say let us reduce the capacity and move part of that capacity to Clark. For example if you live in Quezon City, going up 70 km north to Clark seems more infinitely attractive than getting stuck in traffic on C5 or EDSA and missing your NAIA flight only 15 km away!

But Manila is one of the few major cities that has what is called a city airport. The others I can recall are Washington DC's Reagan National, Tokyo's Haneda and Sydney's Kingsford Smith. But in the case of the two former examples, these airports only handle domestic and a handful of international flights. The main gateway to Washington DC is Dulles airport about 25 miles or 40 km from the Washington Memorial. Tokyo's international airport is in Narita 57.5 km from Tokyo Station. Sydney is probably the only major city with a large airport near it (15 minutes by train). The airport handles 33 M passengers a year and due to noise concerns, does not operate 24 hours. The Australian government since 1964 has seen the need for a larger and more distant airport. But plans have never left the drawing board. One plan is to let the current airport serve cargo traffic while passenger traffic is relocated elsewhere.

City airports are convenient but were built when people lived in cities. But we now live in megacities. These urban environmental systems modify the local climate and airports pose a danger to people on the ground. If we want larger airports, we have to pay the price of traveling a longer distance to get to it. That's the price of commonplace air travel and living in megapolises. It makes an irony of air travel doesn't it? In many cases, you spend more time getting to and from and at the airport than in the air!

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