THE gargantuan mess that shut down our international airports on, of all days, New Year’s Day, should be a slap on our nation’s face. It was a harsh reminder that in contrast to most of our neighbors, we have neglected to build what is indubitably a crucial element of economic growth: an efficient, no-fail international airport.
The Manila International Airport in fact is a symbol of our economic decay over the years. Manila had the first modern international airport when it started operations in 1961 — when we were the most developed country in Asia — thanks to the runway the US built in the latter years of World War 2 to accommodate even its biggest bombers, positioned to destroy Japan.
Six decades later our international airport still uses basically the same runway, with the main addition being the construction of two new terminals, Terminal 2 in 1999 and 3 in 2008, after useless legal battles against it.
Airports and their terminals aren’t just infrastructure for air travel. They are the main indicator of a country’s economic growth and its government’s political will to have these built, even in the face of attempts to stop them by political opposition groups. They are in a way huge neon signs of a country telling the world how developed the nation has been, “visit or invest here.”
While there have been no rigorous studies showing how an efficient airport attracts foreign investors, it is obvious that companies, especially high-tech ones, would prefer to invest in a country with an airport known to be so efficient that it assures on-time delivery of its products and fast transport of its needed spare parts, even raw materials.
The shutdown of our international airports on New Year’s Day, no matter what explanation the government gives, was a big red light on the country as an unattractive investment site. If you were an executive who would manage your company’s operations in the Philippines, if ever, wouldn’t you be afraid having to spend a full day in the Manila airport — as happened on New Year’s Day — because its air traffic management system conked out for the stupid reason its two uninterrupted power systems (UPS) did not work?
It is indeed depressing for Filipino travelers to pass through these airports just in Southeast Asia: Singapore’s amazing, jaw-dropping Changi which opened in 1981, the year when martial law was supposedly lifted here; Indonesia’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport, 1985; Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport,1998; and Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport built on a swamp, 2006, and vigorously opposed by opposition groups.
What would shame us is that Vietnam, a war-ravaged country, has two fully international airports, the former US military base Tan Son Nhat International Airport which opened a new terminal in 2014 and the older Noi Bai International Airport, 1978. While our international airport was labeled in a recent survey as Asia’s worst airport, the Vietnamese airports have been listed as among the world’s 100 best.
There is however a big opportunity for the country to join its neighbors in having a modern airport: San Miguel Corp.’s proposal to build a new Manila International Airport in Bulacan. According to the SMC plan, the airport would even have its own ecozone to attract foreign investors. SMC together with other investors will shoulder the entire P740 billion cost of building the airport.
In a press statement several months ago, SMC Chief Executive Officer Ramon S. Ang explained: “Among our plans for the ecozone is to help create science and technology export hubs with the cheapest logistics cost, because these will be close to the airport and seaport. We are looking to attract world-class semiconductor manufacturers, battery power storage system manufacturers, electric vehicle makers, and even modular nuclear power assemblies and other new and emerging tech industries. We estimate these industries alone will add some $200 billion in annual exports — a big boost to our GDP.”
Ang added: “What we don’t want is to repeat the mistakes of the past where we were not quick enough to develop new infrastructure, giving rise to overcapacity and congestion on our aging roads, ports, and other facilities, and even in our skies. Temporary fixes will not do anymore. We are building for the future.”
The plan had been approved by former president Rodrigo Duterte, with Congress passing two bills authorizing the creation of an export processing zone near the airport that would support it. However, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in January vetoed the bill, with only a terse note that he didn’t expound on, saying only that it carried “substantial fiscal risks.”
SMC’s airport plan is exactly what this country needs. It was huge ecozones that jump-started the phenomenal growth of China and Malaysia in the 1980s. Vietnam two years ago had started construction in 2017 of an ecozone it called “Saigon Silicon City” on a 22,000-hectare swath of land. As the name suggests, its aim is to attract US tech firms into its new “city” to take advantage of Vietnam’s cheaper labor costs and increasing number of Vietnamese educated in English and engineering. But I think we already have much more skilled English-speaking Filipinos to run hi-tech and software firms.
If I were Marcos, I would just concentrate on three things to complete within his term, and leave everything else to his Cabinet and other officials — even the Agriculture department which is in a mess now because of his insistence to run it.
One would be the establishment of the Maharlika Sovereign Fund — which I think he is after all hell bent on establishing. The second would be the creation of a joint venture between a Philippine and a Chinese firm (maybe even include a Vietnamese one) to explore and extract natural gas from Reed Bank, one of which sites there called the Sampaguita Field, has been suspected since the 1970s to have huge gas deposits. Depending on actual drilling on the deposits, the Sampaguita Field could provide us as much as 40 percent of our energy requirements.
And third, have the new international airport in Bulacan with an ecozone built as soon as San Miguel and its partners can. Maybe Ang should tell Marcos that the new airport will be named “Ferdinand E. Marcos International Airport,” leaving the name of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport unchanged, for it to just decay over the years.
If Marcos just completes these three projects in the remaining 5.5 years of his administration, the country will be so thankful.
Focus. Focus, Mr. President.
Secretary Bautista’s comment
Transport Secretary Jaime Bautista called me to say that he wasn’t blaming the previous administration which installed the state-of-the-art system for controlling air traffic into our international airports (called Communications, Navigation and Surveillance Systems for Air Traffic Management, CNS/ATM). The system conked out, forcing our airports to close down during most of New Year’s Day, since without this system, management of the inbound and outbound air traffic cannot be undertaken, risking collision.
I had quoted him in my column, based on verbatim reports of his statements in a press statement, saying that the system installed in 2019 was “outdated” which eventually resulted in its shutdown. Bautista told me he meant the system was only in “mid-life” but not outdated.
He said the problem was not in the CNS/ATM system but in the power supply device powering it. While supposedly an “interruptible power system,” it conked out. The second backup UPS seemed to work fine, but only later did the engineers discover that it wasn’t providing the CNS/ATM the 220 volts it needed but 380 volts, which damaged the entire system.
I just can’t fathom that explanation. I bought the UPS that powers my iMac three years ago, for P1,500. Like all UPS devices I suppose, it has a fuse that shuts it down if the power it delivers is more than 220 volts. Bautista disclosed that the UPS for the CNS/ATM is made in Germany and costs P5 million each. Bautista said the engineers discovered that the backup was delivering 380 volts to the system only when “they smelled something burning.”
Oh, well. It would only be through a rigorous, transparent investigation of the incident by an authoritative, objective body will the truth be out.
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