aviation policy

Air and Infra Policy: The Big Disconnect


Looking at the list of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects that were announced yesterday, I find a big disconnect between the airline policies that the government has or intends to have on the one hand and the infrastructure it seeks to procure on the other.

As the PAL union filed their notice of strike on the same day, it is worth noting the irony. Last year the president announced that if the parties concerned at the national carrier failed to come to an agreement over their terms of employment, he would readily declare an ‘open skies’ policy over Metro Manila, if not the entire archipelago.

This was followed by a hasty retreat, as the Palace later backtracked from this bold statement of declaring open skies over the entire country to one of having ‘pocket’ open skies over select cities outside Metro Manila, and later to a position of merely having ‘pocket’ open skies over select cities for destinations with reciprocal access granted to our airlines. All of these caveats of course seriously undermine and make a mockery of the meaning of the words ‘open skies’ to begin with.

To make matters worse, lawmakers and their lobbyists point to the fact that even if we granted open access to foreign carriers to our nation’s airports, they are not equipped with the necessary safety equipment and infrastructure required by today’s aviation industry. The downgrading of NAIA’s facilities by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has crippled the expansion of PAL into lucrative routes in the US; it has also prevented European carriers from considering routes to Manila.

Given this government’s intention to rely on private investment to fund public infrastructure, the need to consider capital spending to upgrade our main gateway into the country should have been given prime importance. The announced NAIA expressway does not quite do that. One only has to look at the blueprint proposed by the Joint Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines for airports and seaports to realize how woefully inadequate this is.

With the draft Philippine Medium Term Development Plan (MTDP) up for release, one wonders whether what the country needs instead is some strategic thinking that focuses on the infrastructure requirements of the country up to mid-century from which a medium term plan and PPP wish list can then be based.  The Infrastructure chapter of the proposed MTDP makes repeated mention of the need to draft strategic plans for transport, water and energy (so in fact the MTDP is a plan to develop a plan!).

Third World actually means paying your way through the nose for sub-standard facilities or service.

Whenever I come home to the Philippines, I am often struck by how much has changed since my last visit. What I always find disappointing, however, is how little improvements have occurred within our main air terminal over the years. I always find it insufferable whenever I travel around the country to wait in line just to pay a ‘terminal fee’ of 20 pesos or thereabouts to go from one island to another. Departing from Manila I have to prepare close to one hundred dollars (!) on my way to the gate with my family for the same reason.

It bothers me especially when I consider how much I have to pay at the magnificent Singapore Changi Airport or the Kuala Lumpur International Airport en route to Manila: exactly $0! And what do I get for paying my airport terminal fee in Manila? I can’t really tell. At KLIA my wife was able to face time with her friends and family back in Australia for free. At NAIA you had to pay to use a lounge to gain access to WiFi.

If we needed a reminder of what a third world country is like: this is it. I actually try to avoid using the term third world at all. It is hardly in use in these “the world is flat” days, but in this particular context, the label is so apt. Third World actually means paying your way through the nose for sub-standard facilities or service.

Unfortunately, the MTDP did not contain timelines for when the Strategic Development Plan to cover our infrastructure would come out or who would be responsible for drafting it. Gauging from the amount of time it took them to draft the MTDP, we might be in for a long haul (pun intended). It took nine months or so for them to release the medium term development plan that covers six years. At that rate, it might take nearly five years to develop a plan for 40 years. Let us hope it does not take that long.