May 12, 2012

Clark too far for locals, tourists–Delta Air exec

Steven Crowdey (third form left), Delta Air Lines Inc. general manager for Australia, Micronesia, and the Philippines, was a guest panelist at a forum hosted by the Department of Tourism, which unveiled the agency’s national strategy to boost tourist arrivals in the country. Other panelists are (from left) Camarines Gov. LRay Villafuerte; Pagcor Chairman Cristino Naguiat Jr.; Joy Bulauitan, Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority assistant chief operating officer; and Tourism Undersecretary Daniel Corpuz. (DOT photo)

AN OFFICIAL of Delta Air Lines Inc. urged the Philippine government to rethink its plans to transfer the country’s premier international gateway from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) in Parañaque, to the Clark International Airport in Pampanga.

Steven Crowdey, Delta’s general manager for Australia, Micronesia and the Philippines, also told a gathering of tourism industry stakeholders on Thursday, that “I disagree that Naia is the ‘worst airport in the world’. There are others [which are] worst.”

While he didn’t identify those other airports, his pronouncement was met with cheers from the representatives of various tourism sectors who had gathered for the unveiling of the National Tourism Development Plan, by the Department of Tourism at the SMX Convention Hall.

His statement was in reaction to a travel blog’s tag in October on the Naia as the “worst airport in the world,” and to CNNGo’s ranking of the facility as fifth among the “world’s most hated airports” in November.

The DOT forum, dubbed “Tomorrow’s Tourism: Harnessing the Growth Potentials of the Tourism Sector,” was held in conjunction with the 45th Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of the Asian Development Bank held in Manila from May 2 to 5.

“Clark is a very long way from Manila proper,” said Crowdey, in an interview with the BusinessMirror, after the forum. “It’s farther than Hong Kong is from the Hong Kong [International] Airport. It’s much farther than Narita [International Airport] from Tokyo.”

Besides, he added, foreign tourists don’t use public transportation in Manila like they do in Hong Kong or Tokyo.

“So I think there are massive challenges in trying to get people from Clark down to the city proper.”

Also the first vice chairman of the Board of Airline Representatives (BAR), Crowdey said if passengers had to transfer from Clark, on top of their long-haul flight, the country would likely not be recommended as a tourist destination.

“You’re not going to get too many tourists recommendations, and you’re not going to get too many repeat visits. So I think it’s important that the primary airport remains in place to serve both those [foreign and domestic] tourists, and those 25 million Filipinos living in Manila and south of the city.”

Clark International Airport from the air. (Photo from Clark-Subic Marketing.)

Close to 30 million passed through the Naia last year, according to data from the Airport Council International, exceeding the total capacity of its three terminals. Terminal 1 was built to accommodate only 4.5 million passengers a year, while Terminal 2 (Centennial) was built for 9 million, and Naia 3 for 13 million passengers, or a total of 26.5 million.

Since the Ramos administration in the 1990s, the Philippine government has been eyeing Clark as a premier international gateway, due to the massive congestion at Naia. Summer, being a peak season for travel, has worsened the congestion with numerous flights delayed for hours, or worse, canceled, and causing hundreds of irate passengers.

The relocation plans to Clark have again been announced by the Aquino administration. Yet it has put on hold the controversial NorthRail project that would have linked Manila to the Clark terminal.

Meanwhile, Crowdey said there were no immediate plans for Delta to offer direct flights between Manila and the US. However, its Boeing 747’s currently serving the route via stopovers in Nagoya and Narita in Japan, are currently being refurbished.

“We’re about halfway through with the process at the moment. It will be complete by October. Some of the aircraft flying the route, all of them will have lie-flat beds and all of them will have video on demand in the economy class,” he said.

At present, Delta flies seven times a week from Manila to 10 gateways in the US via Narita, and five times a week to Detroit, the carrier’s hub for its flights to Asia, via Nagoya. Said hub and Manila routes were acquired when Delta merged with Northwest Airlines in October 2008.

“At the moment we’re looking at continuing to pass through Narita and Nagoya,” the airline official said when asked if Delta was considering direct flights between the US and Manila. “That’s how we can service the demand. That’s the best service. We can offer one-stop service to 10 gateways cities in the US. It’s very convenient. That’s how we think we can best serve the market.”

On the possibility of moving its operations to Naia Terminal 3 from Terminal 1, Crowdey said, like other international carriers, Delta is “willing [to move] subject to” certain conditions that need to be met by the Manila International Airport Authority (Miaa), the manager of the Naia airport terminals.

“We have some security requirements. We have requirements in terms of space, offices and lounges. A cargo facility next to the terminal would be nice. And all these discussions are ongoing with current airport authorities. So we’re interested in moving, but only if ‘a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h’ [are] completed,” he stressed.

The Arroyo administration expropriated the facility in December 2004, when it was already 99-percent complete, alleging anomalous changes in the build-own-transfer contract between its original owners PairCargo and Fraport AG, and the administration of former President Joseph Estrada.

Foreign carriers bucked the transfer to Naia 3 then, citing uncertainties due to the legal issues arising from the government takeover.

Crowdey said the response from the Miaa regarding the requirements of foreign carriers “has been very positive. So we’re working through those with [Miaa].” If ever these issues are fully addressed this year, he said they could move to Naia 3, but “it is going to be very late in the year.”

Only AirPhil Express - the budget carrier affiliate of Philippine Airlines - Cebu Pacific, and Japan carrier All Nippon Airways - are currently flying out of Naia 3.

BAR is composed of representatives of some 30 foreign carriers operating in the Philippines. It has been very vocal in asking the government to address issues that are hampering the carriers’ profitability.

(Originally published in the BusinessMirror, May 7, 2012.)

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