Airlines target 2017 for transfer to Clark

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By Ma. Stella F. Arnaldo / Special to the BusinessMirror

MAGNUM (SkyJet) Air Inc., the aviation concern of the Tieng family’s Solar Group, is buying a new plane to beef up its fleet and respond to the growing number of tourists to key destinations in the country.

This developed as SkyJet COO Joaquin Po told the BusinessMirror that the current air-traffic congestion at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia)  is a challenge to the expansion of many carriers.

“We’re happy with our routes, but we want to expand and add other destinations. Unfortunately, because of the air-traffic congestion, it’s limiting our growth,” Po said.

He explained that “before, our aircraft could do five turnarounds, now we can do only three. With the last leg, we already get tense because we might not make it back [to Manila].”

Although the airline flies to the prime tourism destinations of Basco, Batanes; Busuanga (Coron), Palawan; and Caticlan (Boracay), Aklan, these still do not have night-rated airports, “so we have to deal with sunrise and sunset limitations.”

He added that the carrier is willing to move its flights to the Clark International Airport (CIA), “provided other airlines be made to transfer there, too.”

The SkyJet executive believes that the carrier will lose its edge as a convenient mode of transport for tourists if they move their flights to Clark, while its rivals going to the same destinations will remain in Manila, flying out of the Naia.

For instance, SkyJet offers its passengers the convenience to fly directly to Caticlan—only 15 minutes by pumpboat to the popular resort island of Boracay—instead of flying to Kalibo, about two to three hours by bus from Caticlan. The flight to Caticlan takes just 25 minutes from Manila, instead of the usual 45 minutes to an hour, on turboprops used by other carriers.

A longtime aviation executive, Po noted, though, that even if SkyJet and other carriers transfer some of its flights to Clark, as the Department of Transportation (DOTr) has been pressing them to do, “even Clark airport officials say they are not ready. Clark can only accommodate five flights an hour, and has limited facilities, such as the small passenger terminal. The infrastructure is not ready to accommodate the transfer of flights from the Naia.”

Other aviation sources confirm Po’s observation, saying that the “earliest we can transfer is in 2017.” Philippine Airlines (PAL), for one, has already committed to the DOTr to move some of its flights to Clark. However, a PAL source said the earliest they can transfer some flights is “before the end of the year.” Earlier, PAL announced it was studying the possibility of flying to Inchon, South Korea, from Clark.

Another industry source added, “we will need more time [to transfer our flights to Clark], as we don’t have people [staff] there.” The aviation sources, who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on their respective airlines’ behalf, stressed that the DOTr, though, wants the transfers to Clark to happen by the 100th day of the Duterte administration, or by October 14, 2016, “to show that the agency has some accomplishments.”

At present, the CIA  can only accommodate 4.8 million passengers annually. The Naia, on the other hand, can accommodate 30 million passengers annually, and 42 flights per hour.

Meanwhile, SkyJet will be buying another plane, a British Aerospace 146-200, a 96-seater jet that can do short takeoffs and landings in the limited runways of the country. This brings to three the total fleet of SkyJet, which already uses two BAe 146-100s, seating 80 passengers each. BAe jets are favored by the UK Ministry of Defence, which even buys second-hand 146-200s for its Royal Air Force.

While he declined to say how much the Solar Group would be spending to buy the BAe 146-200 from a Peruvian company, a check on the Internet shows second-hand units cost at least $4.5 million (P218.5 million).

The third plane, which will arrive by the end of October 2016, will enable SkyJet to increase the number of its frequencies to its destinations: daily to Basco, two times a day to Busuanga (gateway to Coron) and three times a day to Caticlan (gateway to Boracay).  “We want to add more frequencies to our destinations to support the growing number of tourists,” Po said.

Basco received an historic number of visitors in 2015 at 25,382, surging by some 684 percent. Of the arrivals, 1,083 were foreigners with the rest, domestic tourists.

While no recent data is available, Coron received as many as 100,000 visitors in 2012. Its arrivals dipped slightly when it was hit by Supertyphoon Yolanda in 2013, but published reports indicated that its arrivals are now back on track, recording 400 domestic and foreign visitors a day as of the first quarter in 2015.

The world-famous Boracay Island, which is fed by the Caticlan airport, registered 1.56 million tourists, of which, some 770,000 were foreigners and around 748,000 were domestic travelers. The Department of Tourism targets visitor arrivals in Boracay to reach 1.7 million in 2016.

A boutique airline set up in 2012 by dentist Joel Mendoza, SkyJet was bought by the Solar Group in January 2014. It has a license to operate as a domestic and international carrier.



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