Remember the excitement in 2011 when it was announced by the-then administration that the new air gateway to the Philippines would be through a new purpose-built airport in the Clark Freeport Zone, bordering Angeles City, Pampanga? Certainly, the developers and the speculators who piled in for the next 24 months or so will. They threw up hotels and opened services-sector business, staking their claims on this new land of opportunity with the zeal and the energy of the legendary Sierra Nevada gold prospectors in the 1849 California gold rush.
Land and property prices went skyward. The buzz everywhere was that Angeles City was going to boom; international carriers were going to land their packed, wide-bodied aircraft at Clark International Airport (CIA) and disgorge their cargoes of tourists and business travellers. The roads were already in for the 80-km journey to the capital, Manila; a high-speed rail link – direct from inside terminal – was also in the planning. Hoteliers, restaurateurs, shopkeepers, travel and real-estate agents were going to strike it rich. Angeles City was set to burst from the shadows of a sex garden and become a vibrant commercial hub.
And though the scheme encountered many problems – not least, a protracted stalling of the bidding process for the myriad of projects involved with the construction, and the removal of the Clark International Airport Corporation as the project’s overseer – the vibe, that Clark would soon have an airport comparable to Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, remained strong. And the investors – almost anyone with some spare cash – continued to roll in.
And why wouldn’t they? At the end of 2011, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), as it was known then, had announced that it was seeking to sell-off its flagship air gateway, Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila. It had even put a price tag on it; US$590 million. CIA’s future as the Philippine’s premier air-landing site seemed practically assured.
But for the past three years, this story has got quieter and quieter. And then late last month, Emigdio Tanjuatco III, CIA’s president and CEO – and second cousin to former president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, who appointed him – announced that closing NAIA is “very unrealistic and not doable”. His rationale for that was that his airport does not have the operational capability, nor the security, nor the infrastructure to replace NAIA.
But surely, weren’t the billions upon billions of pesos that have been ploughed into this project over the past handful of years meant to provide that capability, that security and that infrastructure? Wasn’t the idea to build and equip an airport of a standard that could meet the demands of an ever-rising volume of travellers? Wasn’t that why NAIA had to go, because it couldn’t?
Apparently not. According to Tanjuatco: “If you’re going to close NAIA and bring everything to Clark, then you’re just transferring the problems of NAIA to Clark”. Yet in 2014, he was boasting of CIA’s superior capacity urging airlines to bring more flights there. Congestion was certainly no problem. He said then: “This is one of the many factors why Clark Airport has an advantage to other airports in the country”, Nor was passenger-handling something to be concerned about: “We have a passenger terminal that can accommodate as much as 5 million passengers annually,” he explained at the time.
So what was really behind the euphoria that inspired the gold rush? Well, given the timing of the first suggestions that Clark would be replacing Manila as the country’s main air hub, the scheme might have more to do with damage control than building for the future. The old Diosdado Macapagal International Airport. CIA’s forerunner, had been undergoing an upgrade since 2007 – former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had directed that US$3.56 billion should be spent on this – but there had never been any talk back then of Clark taking over from NAIA.
What happened in early 2011, however, was that Manila Airport won the distinction of being voted The Worst Airport in the World in an online poll. The previous year it had been voted The Worst Airport in Asia – evidently, an accolade the government could live with. Its new global ranking, however, was less easy to ignore.
Embarrassed internationally as the story went viral, members of the Philippine Senate called for heads to roll. Social media across the Philippines went on a feeding frenzy, posting and reposting comments about the wretched state of NAIA and the shame it had delivered to the country. From the president down, all efforts to defend the airport’s management were abandoned. Studies were commissioned; investigations into shed loads of long-dismissed complains were to be carried out.
Commenting on the poll results, then DOTC secretary, Mar Roxas, threw his weight behind the Pampanga plan saying that there was a limit to the amount of “botox” treatment that could help NAIA. “That’s why we are advocating Clark as the airport of the future,” he said.
CIA’s prospects continued to look rosy as Manila Airport beat off challengers to successfully defend its Worst Airport title in 2012 and 2013. Then, in 2014 it trailed into 4th place after outstanding performances by Islamabad Benazir Bhutto, Jeddah King Abdulaziz, and Kathmandu Tribhuvan. By 2015, it was off the list completely. And as its rankings diminished, so too did government claims that the baton was going to be passed from Manila to Clark.
Not surprisingly, NAIA and CIA did not make the list of Best Airports of the World last year either – though the top five were all in Asia. In order they were: Singapore Changi; Seoul Incheon; Tokyo Haneda; Taipei Taoyuan, and Hong Kong International. Kuala Lumpur International was placed 9th.
CIA, it seems, is now a legacy problem – one of many inherited by the new administration. Its clear failure to meet the requirements to be the country’s main airport has led Transport Secretary, Arthur Tugade, to reverse the 2011 plan by virtually relegating Clark to be an adjunct to NAIA. Airlines have already been asked to transfer their smaller aircraft there; plans for a standard train link from CIA to the capital are to be completed by the end of October.
This is a vibrant region and remains a major drive belt of light manufacturing and entrepreneurship. But investing in businesses that are geared to the belief that CIA some day will be the nation’s pre-eminent aviation hub – that’s a quest for fool’s gold. That said, new airports are a magnate for peripheral-services businesses and the new Mactan-Cebu International Airport is likely to attract a number of those. The World’s First Resort Airport.