By ATTY. JOEY D. LINA
There’s no doubt the turmoil and paralysis of airport operations that hit the principal gateway to our nation’s capital ought to jolt decision-makers into action to prevent a repeat of the debacle that caused tremendous economic losses and international embarrassment.
It’s really an eye-opener how a single plane like the Xiamen Airlines jet that skidded off the rain-soaked runway last Aug.16 could virtually shut down the Ninoy Aquino International Airport for no less than 36 hours, causing a domino effect at other airports resulting in flight cancellations and diverted flights that stranded thousands of travelers for days.
I myself got stranded in Cagayan de Oro up to the wee hours of Aug. 18, but the inconvenience I had to deal with was nothing compared to the misery of countless other passengers, particularly our OFWs who risked losing their jobs or the validity of their exit visas, during the ensuing chaos at the NAIA that spilled over to other airports like Clark and Cebu.
TV interviews, video footages, and news reports showed the extent of the misery: NAIA looked like a refugee encampment with the huge crowd of passengers waiting without food and water for their flight, even as more passengers continued streaming in. With information displays shut down, the staff of some airlines had to walk around to inform their passengers of flight details written on pieces of paper.
It was obvious that there was no sufficient contingency plan, if even there was any, efficiently functioning during that crucial time to deal with the turmoil affecting stranded passengers.
And apart from the chaos inside the airport terminal were reports of a seeming breach in protocol when “various airlines apparently took advantage of the chaotic situation by mounting multiple uncoordinated recovery flights.”
“Last 18 August and 19, we were able to document 61 flights na dumating na walang pasabi sa amin,” Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) General Manager Ed Monreal told media. “Nalaman na lang po namin nung dumating na ’yung eroplano, which created a lot of congestion in terms of parking space.”
The flights in question were reportedly coordinated only with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), prompting a clueless MIAA to find parking places for these planes in the areas already saturated with other planes left idle by the runway’s closure.
Some experts agree that the apparent lack of coordination between MIAA and CAAP “not only exposed dangerous weaknesses in the country’s air transport system; it also puts into question the capability of air transport officials to handle and respond to such emergencies.” A senator even said the uncoordinated 61 flights “are 61 times aviation safety may have been compromised.”
That NAIA was not fully prepared to efficiently handle emergencies affecting the runway became obvious when it turned out that there was no suitable equipment in the immediate vicinity that could be used to remove the ill-fated plane at the shortest time possible.
But what was really brought to light in the incident was the extent of neglect or failure to upgrade the primary international airport which had to operate all these years with only a single runway that often had to be repaired due to cracks that make plane landings and takeoffs risky.
With NAIA operating at overcapacity for years, the latest mishap should prompt government to move more quickly at improving accessibility between Clark and Metro Manila through a railway system, and to act on pending proposals not only to rehabilitate the country’s gateway but also to build other airports nearby to be at par with neighboring countries like Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, or Thailand.
Among the proposals is that of San Miguel Corporation to build “Asia’s most modern airport” in Bulacan that would have “four runways initially, with the first two runways operational in six years, and passenger capacity of 100 million and double after that after 2023.” Around P735 billion in tranches of P150 billion a year would be spent for the Bulacan airport.
There’s also the proposal of tycoons Henry Sy and Wilson Tieng to build a modern airport at Sangley Point in Cavite at a cost of $12 billion. And there’s also a consortium of companies proposing a P106-billion plan to upgrade NAIA facilities in exchange for a 15-year concession period to recover investments.
Whatever proposals government decides on, one thing has indeed become clear: The country’s gateway to the world must be able to meet growing challenges in global travel and must also be able to efficiently respond to emergencies.