Airports should be all-weather, all-night

I have never stopped wondering why, in the face of this country’s being off the Asian mainland and on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, its being archipelagic in nature and its passionate desire to develop a vigorous tourist trade, air transportation appears to enjoy the lowest priority among the three components of the Philippine transportation system. True, maritime transportation should also enjoy a high priority--just look at the series of horrendous disasters that have hit the shipping industry during the last two decades--but building up foreign-tourist traffic is more about air transportation than the two other transportation system components.

Aside from the cost-benefits ratio, the principal consideration underlying the development of projects for inclusion in this country’s air transportation infrastructure program is cost-effectiveness. The reference is here to economic cost-effectiveness, not cost-effectiveness of the political variety, i.e., the construction or improvement of an airport to please an actual or potential ally of the party in power. In the Philippine context, economic cost-effectiveness relates to the extent of use of a new or improved air transportation facility. This in turn relates to (1) a facility’s ability to operate in all kinds of weather and (2) its ability to operate during nighttime.

Philippine Air Lines, Cebu Pacific and the other domestic airlines have indicated that their profitabilities would improve significantly if their aircraft could continue to fly into and out of this country’s minor airports after dark. No doctorate in economics is needed to appreciate that the more an asset is used to generate revenue—or, differently stated, the less time the asset is idle—the greater the positive impact on an airline’s bottom line. All but a handful of Philippine domestic airports are unable to handle night flights.

As for all-weather capability, perhaps only three Philippine airports--Ninoy Aquino, Clark (Macapagal) and Cebu—can be said to have such capability. All the rest of the domestic airports regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines shut down, and all too often suffer damage, in the wake of the passage of the twenty or more typhoons that visit this country every year. Not being an engineer, I don’t know what incremental cost factor is involved in making an airport all-weather. I can say, however, that an airport that can cope with all but the most vicious weather events will be more cost-effective in the long run and will be far less disruptive of travel schedules, especially the schedules of the foreign tourists that this country fervently wants to attract. In the Philippine context, an airport, to be all-weather, would have to be able to cope with torrential rains, very strong winds and, in some cases, flooding.

This is not to say that Neda (National Economic and Development Authority) and DoTC (Department of Transportation and Communications) should not allocate funds for the installation or improvement of airports below Category 1 grade, i.e., the so-called missionary airports. They should. All that I am saying is that the two agencies should accord priority to upgrading this country’s air transportation infrastructure and should, to the greatest cost-versus-benefits extent, strive to make as many domestic airports as possible all-weather and night-usable.

For the record, the DoTC Invitation to Bid that appeared in the press last week indicated that DoTC had budgeted P241 million for the further development of eight non-Category 1 airports. Geographically, I have classified the eight airports as follows: six airports along or close to this country’s stormy Pacific Ocean side (Virac, Calayan, Palanan, Catarman, Maasin and Surigao) and two in the less stormy Central Visayas (Dumaguete and Bantayan).

The eight DoTC projects merely involve the improvement or lengthening of runways, the construction of aprons and the removal of obstacles. They do not involve changes of the cost-effectiveness enhancement kind.

Nothing new under the sun.


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