Filipino and foreign passengers are probably seeing the worst of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) these days, again highlighting the need for the government and stakeholders to immediately agree on an alternative airport serving the country’s capital.
Last Friday the country’s premier gateway recorded a 96-percent delay at the Terminal 3 alone, meaning 383 of the 400 flights scheduled that day arrived or left late.
The next day, 379 flights were delayed; then on April 17 there were 279 delays.
On April 18, 276 flights were disrupted, before the condition improved the following day, when only 133 delays were recorded.
Delays in the other terminals are in proportion to those of Naia 3.
The Naia 3 has the most number of aircraft operations at 400 a day, followed by Naia 2 at less than 200, Naia 1 at about 100 and Naia 4 at about 80, for a combined 780 flights daily.
Since the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap) had decreed that airport events—or the number of takeoff and landings—at the Naia must not exceed 40 an hour, the total 24-hour operation of the airport can only accommodate 960 events.
Most of the flights start shortly after midnight at the Naia and end at their provincial points at sunset, because many outlying airports have no night-landing capabilities. Most of the flight schedules for the provincial routes are crammed within the 12-hour window at the premier airport.
Terminal 4 Manager Bing Lina said scheduled departures at Naia 3 are bunched into eight waves: From 12 a.m. to 3 a.m.; 3 to 6 a.m.; 6 to 9 a.m.; 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.; 12 to 3 pm; and so on at three-hour intervals until midnight.
Unfortunately, these schedules are mostly breached because of the night-landing limitations of some provincial airports.
As for vehicular traffic at the Naia, things had gone a little better and the one-hour traffic jam, recorded last year for weeks on end, is gone. Today traffic flows, albeit slowly, because the construction of the skyway linking the terminals to the casinos at the Macapagal Avenue is halfway finished.
But waiting for a taxi or a limousine remains a problem. There are 30,000 to 50,000 passengers arriving and departing at the Naia daily, while the accredited vehicles are only 3,000, or at most 5,000. Regular taxis are discouraged to enter because the airport because it is hard to trace the violators among them.
David de Castro, Manila International Airport Authority (Miaa) spokesman, said airport police are on the ground to facilitate traffic movement. He said the Miaa works with the local government units and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority to speed things up. He added that the skyway project is not projected to conclude construction up to later in the year.
“Until then, we expect traffic [to be heavy], as already announced by the DPWH [Department of Public Works and Highways],” he said, meaning people should just grin and bear it.
He said aside from accredited airport vehicles, the Miaa had an agreement with Grab. “Soon to come is Uber,” he added, “to cushion the demand.”
Some premium buses have also been fielded to bring passengers from the Miaa to the city centers.
The Miaa contributes to lessening congestion by reactivating runway 13-31 and the construction taxiway “November” to ease aircraft ground traffic, he said.
Meanwhile, Caap Director General William K. Hotchkiss’s promise to upgrade eight to 11 provincial airports did not fully materialize because he is hamstrung by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC). Despite being declared an “independent and autonomous” agency on paper, the Caap remains under the thumb of the Transportation Secretary Emilio “Jun” Abaya.
“He [Abaya] dictates what and where to build the next international airport, what fund to give to any of the many agencies under his control,” said an airport insider who asked not to be quoted for obvious reasons.
On the other hand, if any of the five local carriers suffers a “technical problem” or any of their aircraft gets into a minor incident at any of the country’s 30 active provincial airports, the delays would roll over to their next flights, and a chain reaction occurs.
This is the explanation provided by aviation authorities, who said local airlines had experienced some technical problems on Friday due to still unexplained reasons, causing “situational” problems, or a chain reaction.
“If you are late leaving at your original schedule, then you arrive late at your destination. On the way back to Manila, you would be late in arriving, as well, until the delays had affected all succeeding flights,” said Rodante Joya, the Caap deputy director general for operations. He said the congestion at the Naia could not be blamed to air-traffic management alone. He said the airlines could be at fault for not leaving on time, but the riding public, or the airlines, themselves, usually point the finger to them.
“Ganun ba kadami ang congestion?” he asked. “It was caused by a chain reaction.”
He said air carrier’s maintenance procedures should be the key to avoid delays, and that the particular carriers should stick to their takeoff schedules.
Joya added that separate planes to take care of the slack are a pipe dream, because it is very expensive to maintain a separate aircraft.
The Naia experience
The story of these two travelers showed vividly the congestion at the Naia.
Jessica Ramos and her friend Danica, both employees of ABS-CBN, went to Boracay last Friday, and were at the Naia 4 at 10 a.m. for their scheduled 12:30 p.m. departure for Kalibo. From Kalibo, they would take a bus for the two-hour trip to the famed resort.
When the scheduled departure was nearing, they heard the public announcement system announced that their flights would be delayed to 5:45 p.m. At 9:16 p.m., Ramos said they’re still at the domestic terminal and wondering whether it was their plane that was late or that the congestion was the cause of their stay.
“Ang daming nakapila, lahat kami delayed [There were many that are lined up, all of us were delayed],” she texted her parents, peering through the glass door of the domestic terminals at the parked airplanes outside.
At 11:13 p.m., Ramos said they were finally onboard their plane waiting for takeoff, but remains stuck in the tarmac. “They just kept saying ‘congestion sa airport’,” she said, quoting the flight attendant.
At 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Ramos texted to her parents, “Touchdown Kalibo.” The duo is not as lucky on the way back on April 17. Their plane was scheduled to leave Kalibo at 9:30 p.m., but they were delayed to 12:30 a.m. Eventually they boarded their plane at 1:19 a.m. and touched down at Naia 4 at 2:20 a.m. on Monday.
Needless to say, many more passengers had the same experience.
The BusinessMirror asked Cebu Pacific and Air Asia for comment, but they did not respond. This is not unusual. Silence is the carriers’ best defense against the ire from aviation’s higher-ups. Or maybe both sides are helpless to explain the situation.
These series of unfortunate events transpired last week while the air-traffic controllers at the Naia were at the nadir of their career.
On April 15 members of the air-traffic controllers association expressed their frustration by hanging a banner at the top of the control tower that reads: “Mayday, mayday”—the controllers’ aim to bring to the public’s attention the cold shoulder they are getting from the government. They rue, with justification, that some government agencies received so much money without the same risks that they confront daily.
The members of the air-traffic controllers’ association and other technical experts of the Caap were told by the Commission on Audit (COA) that they should return the approximately half- a-million pesos each of them received in 2012 and 2014. The emoluments were given by the agency for having exerted so much effort, bringing the country’s aviation sector back to Category 1 status.
But the COA told them that their financial windfall was illegal. Their reward does not bear the approval of President Aquino, although the Caap Board had unanimously stamped its approval on it.
Until now Malacañang refused to act on the air controllers’ behalf, despite the representations made by Hotchkiss and his staff last month at the Palace.
The air controllers have been in a defiant mode since the COA ruling and have been wearing black armbands at the Caap compound when they report for duty.
Was there sabotage involved? Nobody could say.
PAL weighs in
Flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) responded to the air controller’s plight and on Wednesday called for a peaceful and immediate resolution to the brewing labor unrest among members of the employees union.
PAL President and COO Jaime Bautista said: “We are hoping for a swift and acceptable solution to the ongoing labor issues within the ranks of the Caap. We express optimism that a resolution will be reached in due time. We are glad to note that technical personnel such as air-traffic controllers continue to carry out their duties.”
PAL, however, warned that a long-drawn conflict between the Caap labor and management on the issue of salaries and bonuses and protest actions, albeit peaceful, will paint a negative picture of the country’s aviation industry.
“It is important to protect the Philippines’s return to Category 1 status, a reflection of the country’s compliance to international safety standards set by the Icao, [International Civil Aviation Organization]. Any perception of disunity in the civil-aviation sector may affect the status the country has earned,” Bautista added.
Joya said the air controllers were reporting on time. He said they have vowed to him that they will never abandon their job. “They said they will stick to their vow of a safe, expeditious and orderly flow of air traffic.”
Tower supervisor Marlene Singson said they don’t have any intention of disrupting air-traffic movement, “because we bowed to serve the flying public.” We do not have plan or attempt to take over the Manila control facilities; we are just in silent protest.”
The BusinessMirror asked authorities why they limit aircraft operations to 40 events per hour. Joya said the numbers being implemented at the Naia is the optimum, not maximum, capacity, due to the current airport and technical limitations, without sacrificing safety.
It was reported that the government is planning to privatize the country’s air-traffic control (ATC) operations, with the hope that this would solve the congestion problem. On the other side of the negotiating table is NATS, the UK’s leading provider of air-traffic control services. Each year it handles 2.4 million flights and 250 million passengers in UK airspace in 13 UK airports.
They provide services around the world spanning Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America.
UK Ambassador Asif Ahmad told the BusinessMirror last December there are ongoing discussion about NATS offer to operate the Naia air-traffic system. He said NATS would be able to improve the Naia’s 40 events per hour to 60 or more events per hour, “the same way they do at Heathrow Airport in London.”
Joya said: “Employees under a private entity could go on strike, do you want our air controllers to go on strike every time they want an issue resolved?”
He said government employees are banned from conducting strikes, which is probably why the Naia air controllers remain at their posts. However, the air controllers at the Naia are probably slowing down without anybody taking much notice.
Expeditious but safe
Christian Faber, who works at Euro-control as an ATC expert on Flow and Capacity Management, elucidates the current dilemma of air-traffic controllers worldwide.
He explains whether the old essence of safe, expeditious and orderly flow still apply today, with the industry dominated by hordes of low-cost carriers, stiff competition, slim profit margin and throng of tourists taking advantage of cheap flights.
He said most people understand “expeditious” to mean “done with speed and efficiency, but fast and efficient may lead to an unsafe situation.”
He said from a Flow and Capacity Management point of view, the terms safe and expeditious are contradictory, even though they proceed from the same source.
His observations about ATC in Europe and elsewhere also apply to the Philippines. Air-traffic standard worldwide is enforced by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
“The aviation world has changed dramatically over the last 20 years and we are faced with challenges, such as the continuing increase of air traffic in the face of limited capacity. On top of that, we are experiencing daily problems such as lack of staffing, adverse weather condition, complex routing schemes, etc.”
“An increase of air traffic goes hand in hand with an increased potential risk of overloading air-traffic controllers; adherence to flight plan, flight levels, routes and ATC slots becomes critical,” Faber added.
“In this light, the ‘expeditious’ flow of air traffic is not always safe. Instead, we might have to consider an ‘optimized’ flow of air traffic, which balances flight efficiency and safety,” he concluded, meaning air travelers have to live with the prospects of delays for the years to come.