Senators cite need for more runways, better passenger protection

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MANILA – Several senators on Wednesday said the recent runway mishap that paralyzed the country’s premier airport highlighted the need to fast-track the construction of additional runways and other airports, as well as the need for better protection for passengers stranded during similar emergencies.

Xiamen Air Flight MF8667 veered off Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s (NAIA’s) main runway during landing at around 11:55 p.m. on August 16, losing its landing gear and left engine in the process.

It took aviation authorities 36 hours before the stalled Boeing 737-800 was removed from the international runway, which resulted to the cancellation of hundreds of flights, leaving tens of thousands of passengers, including hundreds of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), stranded for days and rendering the airport in chaos for days.

In an interview, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the legislative inquiry on the incident clearly showed the need for additional airstrips in NAIA.

Sotto said  there is really needed additional airstrips or we need to expand the current airstrip. That was the main problem.

He said accidents cannot be avoided, but problems would be worsened if there is only one airstrip or the airport is too small to accommodate all the passengers.

Sotto said he is open to an earlier proposal to convert the old Nayong Pilipino into an airstrip or a full-blown airport.

The 45.9-hectare Nayong Pilipino property lies besides NAIA and has been idle for years.

“Napakalaki nun at tsaka natutulog ngayon yun. At may plano pa atang kung sino man ang magtayo ng casino doon imbes na gawing airstrip (That is big and ‘sleeping’ at the moment. And there was even a plan by whoever to build a casino there instead of an airstrip),” Sotto said.

Meanwhile, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said NAIA is already near, if not, past peak capacity, noting that its passenger volume is increasing by 2.5 million passengers a year.

He said at that rate, there is no way that the present facilities can handle 10 million additional passengers by 2022.

“Government has no choice but build a new main gateway to the country,” he said in a statement.

He said merely rehabilitating NAIA without adding a runway will only allow it to increase its passenger handling ceiling to 65 million a year.

“Government must now decide whether NAIA’s decongestion will be through the expansion of Clark airport in Pampanga, the building of San Miguel Corp.’s aeropolis in Bulacan, or the proposal tendered by the Taipans’ Consortium’ to expand NAIA,” Recto said.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri and Senator Sonny Angara also called on authorities to ensure the protection of passengers.

Zubiri said he is pushing for the creation of a trust fund utilizing the PHP270-million travel tax collected at the airports and sea ports to address basic needs of passengers in future “airmaggedons”, or massive stranding of passengers.

The travel tax is transmitted to the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA), formerly the Philippine Tourism Authority.

“I propose that we amend the purpose and utilization of that tax, now transmitted to the TIEZA, by segregating and allocating for passenger emergency needs in all airports. They should be fed, given sleeping facilities and granted cash for emergency needs,” he said.

The lawmaker said authorities could refer to the template used by Changi airport, which integrated sleeping quarters within the airport for those stranded.

“Integrated sleeping quarters is important, so that when operations normalize, the passengers could be dispatched quickly and much more efficiently. This is needed for passengers coming from far flung areas and have no means to book accommodations or go home to their respective provinces and cities by land while awaiting their rebooked flights,” Zubiri said.

“TIEZA should now help build these facilities at all our airports that can accommodate those that are stranded or inconvenienced by delays, bad weather or accidents such as this. It’s about time that we utilize the travel tax revenues for the very people that it was collected from in the first place, the traveling public,” he added.

On the other hand, Angara called on airport authorities to look into the compliance of air carriers with the Air Passenger Bill of Rights (APBR) which guarantees compensation for cancelled flights.

“While our primary goal is to prevent such NAIA runway incident from happening again, we must also ensure that all affected passengers of the over 600 cancelled flights were given proper care and assistance,” he said.

Under the APBR, in cases of flight cancellation, air carriers are obligated to provide sufficient refreshments and meals, hotel accommodation, transportation from airport to the hotel, free phone calls, texts or emails, and first aid, if necessary.

Passengers also must be reimbursed of the value of the fare, or endorsed to another air carrier, or rebooked to the next flight available without additional charge.

During Wednesday’s Senate hearing, it was revealed that not all passengers were given food and accommodation, and not all were informed on the changes of flight schedule.

“Kasabay nito, dapat ay madaliin na rin ang pag-decongest ng NAIA, pati na ang pag-develop ng secondary international gateways at provincial airports (At the same time, we must also fast-track the decongestion of NAIA as well as the development of secondary international gateways and provincial airports),” Angara said. –PNA

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