Build, build, build Bulacan airport now!

  • Reading time:8 mins read

ENOUGH is enough. The 36-hour closure of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport last weekend — with that disaster, probably appropriately named — created a hell for air travelers who were looking forward to heavenly vacations or financially rewarding work abroad.

The horror stories on these were the hot topic all over Manila, what with over 100,000 travelers missing their flight since last Thursday. A nephew’s flight from Doha was diverted to Bangkok where he stayed overnight in a two-star hotel. He arrived in the country only through Clark airport, with his wife having to brave the torrential rains to drive four hours to and from Pampanga to fetch him. He lost three days out of his one-week vacation. My son, an international pilot, related to me the chain-effect of the closure on all airlines in the region, from higher fuel costs (for planes having to be diverted elsewhere), rescheduling of flights, to huge overtime pay for airline attendants and crew.

We need not belabor the point. Forget our dreams of our economy finally taking off to become at the very least another Malaysia in our lifetimes or becoming a top tourist spot if our main international airport — would you believe that? — has only one runway. Yes, just one which means our capital’s link to the world is closed by one airline stuck — as the Xiamen Airlines plane was on Sunday — on that single runway.

The richest cub tigers in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Thailand, in fact had prioritized the building of new international airports, which were major factors for their rapid growth.

Malaysia started building its Kuala Lumpur International Airport 25 years ago in 1993, which opened in 1998.

The Thais bought land for its Suvarnabhumi Airport back in 1973. The project though was delayed by budget overruns, construction flaws, allegations of corruption, the 1997 financial crisis, and political turmoil. Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? At one time, workers even refused to do their work after it was discovered that the airport was built on an old graveyard, with the laborers — of course — reporting to have seen angry ghosts.

Despite all its seemingly insurmountable difficulties, Suvarnabhumi Airport opened in 2006. It was my stopover airport during my trips as ambassador to Greece, which after landing at our airport, depressed me with the kind of feeling that Rizal described in his novel Noli Me Tangere as the “el demonio de las comparaciones.” (Greece a tiny country of 10 million people, contracted a private, mostly German-owned firm, to build and maintain its international airport, which took four years to build, and opened in 2001. It is located 20 miles from Athens, where the old airport was.)

Much earlier of course, Singapore opened in 1981 its now world-renowned Changi International Airport. That is one big factor for it becoming a financial hub, more perhaps than that “ease of doing business” so often attributed as the tiny country’s edge.

An efficient airport, and especially not one that would be closed when an airline is stuck on the tarmac on a rainy night, has especially become a very crucial element for an economy’s growth in this digital age of global online businesses.

And what have we been doing all this while? Building huge band-aids, Terminal 2 and then Terminal 3 — all to serve a single runway. 

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2008 was pushing for the industrial conglomerate San Miguel’s proposal to build a new international airport in Bulacan province. She of course didn’t have the time nor the political power by that time to push for it. As expected, nothing was heard of it during the succeeding “noynoying” government.

Four advantages

The San Miguel proposal — for a new four-runway airport and a terminal on 2,500 hectares of property in Bulakan, Bulacan with an expressway leading to NLEX — seems to be the most “doable” project for the Duterte administration to mobilize its political might to push through for several reasons. The conglomerate claims it could open the new airport by 2023. The project has four things to its advantage at the moment.

First, the other proposals involve constructing new terminals and runways in the present NAIA compound or in Clark International Airport. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and even Greece obviously weren’t as stupid as simply building on an old airport, that were in the middle of their metropolises.

Second, the San Miguel project is the most advanced in terms of development, with the National Economic Development Authority having approved the proposal in April, and is now simply awaiting, as required by law, the so-called Swiss challenge. This is the process by which other companies could present proposals lower than that by the original proponent, which is then given a chance to match these.

Third, San Miguel, according to its president and reputedly its single biggest stockholder, Ramon Ang, will entirely finance it, and won’t need government funding — which would be either difficult to raise or would take years.

Fourth, San Miguel is committing and would be doing the project alone. “You look at our balance sheet and our cash flow, we can easily do that airport alone,” Ang said in May. “The financing for the construction of the airport, if and when we have it, San Miguel has the balance sheet to do that.”

This is unprecedented and very important for a project to push through and be completed. Many of our government’s ambitious private-driven projects were proposed by consortiums of firms, even the biggest.

While the idea of a consortium made the project seem more likely to push through — what with more rich companies raising the needed funds — in practice, the firms would squabble among themselves and then abandon the consortium one by one.

Remember President Fidel Ramos’ ambitious Asia’s Emerging Dragon Corp. in 1993 which he “asked” the country’s Chinese-Filipino billionaires to set up to undertake infrastructure programs? (The taipans were John Gokongwei, Andrew Gotianun, Henry Sy Sr., Lucio Tan, George Ty and Alfonso Yuchengco.) Well, taipans will be taipans, and either they squabbled among themselves or weren’t really interested in the idea of allying with competitors. This emerging dragon never flew at all and never went into a single infrastructure project.

Remember the Fort Bonifacio project that was won and was to be developed by a consortium of a dozen property magnates led by the Indonesian-controlled Metro Pacific? When things got rough during the 1998 financial crisis, the group’s members left one by one, which further spooked the market to drive its property prices to the basement. Metro Pacific eventually was left alone facing bankruptcy, which in a clever scheme got the Ayalas to take over.

The biggest risk of a huge privately funded government infrastructure project — but is not widely known — is that our biggest tycoons are fiercely competitive and will try to wrestle the project away from the original proponents, using their connections with whoever is in power. The MRT-3 project was launched in 1989 by Cory Aquino but was so much delayed it was inaugurated only by President Estrada in 1998. I covered that episode, and had concluded that a powerful business group that emerged during Ramos’ administration wrestled the project from a foreign group led by an Israeli businessman.

More recently, the common station that would have linked the three urban rail systems during President Aquino 3rd’s term has been delayed for several years now because of the squabble between the Sy and the Ayala conglomerates over where it would be located — at the SM mall (the original site) or the Ayala-owned Trinoma.

An insurance of sorts for us is that the builder is San Miguel, one of the country’s biggest firms. More importantly, it is a listed firm, and if anything goes wrong with its airport project, its share prices will collapse. I don’t think Ang and his other shareholders would ever allow that.

What would also be going for San Miguel’s project is President Duterte’s political will and independence from the country’s oligarchs — both of which he has proven in his two years in office. It will be Duterte’s biggest legacy if he manages to open an entirely new airport.

Would you believe that our existing international airport’s was first built more than half a century ago, in 1954, and that it was constructed there because it already had a runway, the US Air Force Base’s Runway 13/31 right after the war?

 

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