You are on page 1of 3

Fear of flying in the Philippines

By Joel D Adriano

MANILA - When a portion of Ninoy Aquino International Airport's ceiling fell and injured people below earlier this year, it represented another low point for the Philippines' beleaguered aviation sector. While other Asian countries have recently invested billions of dollars to modernize their main international gateways, the airport's sorry state of repair is symbolic of the Philippines' increasinglylaggardposition. The Guide to Sleeping in Airports, an interactive website that ranks global airports, recently branded the airport's Terminal 1 as the world's worst facility. Based on traveler reviews, Facebook comments and information provided by the airport, the survey found it plagued by poor facilities, uncomfortable seating, a lack of cleanliness, rude staff, bribery and safety concerns. Notably, the website's four best airports were all in Asia; namely, Singapore, Hong Kong,
SouthKoreaandMalaysia. Aviation analysts say Ninoy Aquino International Airport's bad reputation has eroded the Philippines' image as a hospitable destination for foreign business, investment and travel and undermined the country's competitive position vis-a-vis its Association of Southeast Asian Nation neighbors and competitors. A new, more modern facility, Terminal 3, was completed six years ago but stands mostly idle due to an unresolved contractual dispute with its local and foreign builders. Currently, Terminal 3 is running at less than half capacity and does not house any international carriers or services.With that facility closed to the outside world, safety concerns are mounting at the three-decades-old Terminals 1 and 2. The airport is the Philippines' primary international gateway, handling more than 65% of the country's domestic and international landings and takeoffs on only one operational runway. Aviation experts say that runway logjam causes on average 30 to 50 minute delays, unnecessary fuel usage and a higher potential for air traffic accidents. In 2007, both the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) downgraded Ninoy Aquino International Airport in 2007 due to safety concerns; four years later and the situation has arguably deteriorated. The airport's current FAA Category 2 rating bars Philippine carriers from expanding their operations in the US.Poor infrastructure, aging radar systems and substandard technology all conspire to cause flight delays and passenger gridlock, according to the Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA), a private consulting group. PSA has advised its clients to take extra precautions when hiring airport taxis at Terminal 1 as international travelers are often cheated by airport terminal personnel or targeted by carjacking syndicates that post spotters around the airport to identify cash-carrying travelers. The list of concerns has sent international carriers fleeing for the exits. By April next year, the country will lose its last and only direct flight connecting to Europe as Air France-KLM plans to halt its flight between Manila and Amsterdam. The airline has cited high taxes, excessive fees, poor infrastructure and heavily subsidized competition from Middle Eastern carriers for its decision to withdrawal. Other European carriers left long ago due to similar concerns. Mounting losses While the economic and reputational losses mount, a protracted legal dispute pitting the government against local and foreign investors has kept the Philippines' aviation sector grounded. In 1997, the government awarded a US$425 million contract to build a new airport terminal to (PIATCO),

However, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's administration nullified PIATCO's contract in 2002 on the grounds that it was overpriced and because Fraport allegedly used front companies to own most of PIATCO and circumvent local laws barring foreigners from owning more than 40% of key national facilities, including airports. The government seized the completed terminal in 2007 and PIATCO and Fraport have since sought arbitration through local courts and international bodies. There is no resolution in sight, however. A regional trial court in Manila handed down a decision in May this year that awarded PIATCO damages worth $170 million, substantially less than the $1.7 billion the firm sought. In December last year, Fraport successfully appealed a 2007 decision handed down by the Washington-based International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes which ruled that Fraport and its partners had violated the Philippines' anti-dummy law. The ruling granted Fraport the right to re-arbitration and pursue anew its $645 million suit against the Philippine government. While the Philippine government re-submitted its previous evidence of dummying, bribery and money-laundering against the German company, it is also supposedly working on a compromise agreement. The compensation amount remains the main stumbling block, according to sources familiar with the situation. The dispute has deterred foreign investors from participating in President Benigno Aquino's new Public-Private Partnership (PPP) drive to improve the country's creaky infrastructure. Aquino has identified some 81 PPP projects to be completed by 2016, with ten scheduled to be rolled out this year, at an estimated cost of $17 billion. Many of the projects have been hampered by delays, including excessive cautionary reviews to avoid a repeat of the imbroglio at Terminal 3.Authorities are responding to the situation with typically stop-gap measures. For instance, they have proposed to move general aviation, ranging from executive jets and small scale aircraft operated by flying schools, from Ninoy Aquino International Airport to a former US military base at Sangley Point in Cavite province, southwest of Manila. They have claimed such a move would free up around 25% of the currently fully occupied runway slots. Officials are also reportedly weighing the idea of transforming another former US military base, now known as the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport, into a new aviation gateway. Transportation and Communication Secretary Mar Roxas has said the government is now mulling the sale of Terminal 1 to raise funds for the project, which he estimated could be completed within one to three years. Until then, however, international air departures and arrivals in the Philippines will remain among the most uncomfortable and dangerous in the world.