Insights and Analysis

Airport Congestion in the Philippines Sees Improvements

May 24, 2017

By Mari Chrys Pablo

One month from now, Rodrigo Duterte will mark his first year as president of the Philippines. While other more controversial aspects of his policies have captured international headlines during his first year, including a brutal war against drugs, and yesterday’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao, the Duterte administration is continuing to focus on “Dutertenomics,” improving infrastructure. It is seeing results of one big infrastructure priority already: fixing the country’s beleaguered and congested airports.

Clark International is located about 90 kilometers north of Manila, and travelers from northern parts of Manila can reach Clark in about an hour, only half of the commute time it takes to reach NAIA. Photo/Yoshke Dimen

Just one week after Duterte’s May 2016 win, he announced the appointment of Arthur Tugade as secretary of the Department of Transportation. As the former president and CEO of the Clark Development Corporation, Tugade is an active supporter of the dual airport strategy, an attempt to take pressure off the congested Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), the Philippines’ international gateway, and redirect it to the underused Clark International Airport.

Designed for 30 million passengers, in 2016, the number of NAIA passengers reached almost 40 million. As a result of such congestion, the airport, which possesses a single runway, is prone to flight delays, and is consistently placed among the top 10 worst airports in the world, often having the unique distinction of being designated the worst. Economists have identified poor airport infrastructure as a major impediment to the country’s overall economic growth and investments. For example, air services are critical to tourism, with 99 percent out of the six million tourists a year arriving by air; the remaining one percent via cruise ships.

In 2015, the Australian Embassy in Manila and The Asia Foundation, through its Coalitions for Change (CfC) program, began an initiative to find a solution to the airport congestion in the Philippines. After in-depth analysis of technical research conducted by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), we determined that the most viable and swift solution to help address NAIA’s congestion crises was to look to develop the underused Clark International Airport as a complementary gateway to NAIA. Clark International is located about 90 kilometers north of Manila, and travelers from northern parts of Manila can reach Clark in about an hour, only half of the commute time it takes to reach NAIA due to Manila’s worsening traffic.

The story of Clark International goes back nearly two decades. Under President Arroyo (2000-2010), commercial flights began at Clark and passenger traffic grew to 650,000. At the start of President Aquino’s (2010-2016) term, passenger traffic continued to grow due to momentum. In 2012, Aeroports de Paris was commissioned to design a new terminal with a capacity to serve eight million passengers. However, the administration abandoned the plan for the new terminal, causing a significant setback for the airport and a decline in traffic starting in 2013. As a result, investors lost their appetite, carriers abandoned the route, and passenger traffic sharply declined. With Clark’s expansion cancelled, carriers were left with no other option but to continue flying to NAIA, further exacerbating runway and terminal congestion and leading to regular flight delays.

In December 2015, the CfC began to reconnect reformers, the Clark International Airport Corporation, Subic-Clark Alliance for Development, the Metro Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Greater Clark Visitors Bureau, to reinvigorate their support to develop Clark International as a feasible way of decongesting NAIA. To gain political clout in time for the May 2016 national election, CfC broadened support and established a multi-stakeholder coalition, Advocacy for Dual Airport Priority (ADAPT). On April 22, 2016, it held its first assembly and launched a six-point agenda, outlining the steps to developing Clark.

Following meetings with incoming Secretary Tugade and ongoing consultations with key government officials and private stakeholders, in June 2016, two ADAPT members met with President Duterte to discuss the development of Clark International Airport. Soon after these briefings with the administration, the president announced his support.

In his first State of the Nation Address on July 25, 2016, President Duterte emphasized that “Clark Airport can be utilized to shift some operations of our domestic and international airlines.” In addition, the president also appointed Alex Cauguiran, one of the leaders of the ADAPT coalition, as the head of Clark International Airport Corporation in August 2016.

President Duterte’s announcement of Clark Airport’s development had an immediate impact on carriers and other civil aviation market players. Since President Duterte urged airlines to use Clark airport to decongest NAIA in May 2016, the number of passengers in Clark grew from 316,656 on April 2016 to 950,732 in December 2016. Philippine Airlines (PAL), one of two major local air carriers, announced new flights out of Clark as part of their contribution to reduce congestion at NAIA, and in December 2016, PAL held its inaugural Clark-Caticlan flight to the gateway to Boracay, a premiere island tourist spot. PAL also launched its international flights from Clark International to Incheon, South Korea. The Philippines’ largest carrier, Cebu Pacific, also expanded its operations, increasing its weekly Clark-Cebu flights from three to six times and Clark-Hong Kong operations from seven to ten times a week.

In addition, a one-stop-shop first proposed by ADAPT composed of 16 government agencies was established near the Clark Airport to expedite the government process for overseas Filipino workers, a major challenge for the airport, in September 2016.

The rise of Clark as the alternative to NAIA is already promoting growth, investment, and employment, not to mention easing the air traffic and passenger congestion at Manila’s gateway airport. Moving forward, CfC and ADAPT will continue to support the development of Clark Airport. At the top of this reform agenda is the expansion of its passenger terminal from the current three flights to a minimum of 15 flights per hour. This increase will allow carriers to continuously expand their flight services without concerns over terminal congestion and loss in revenue. Meanwhile, passengers in both NAIA and Clark should experience greater comfort and fewer delays in the days to come.

Mari Chrys Pablo is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.


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