Common Sense

27 February 2015

Boo Chanco

I have been talking to a lot of experts in aviation the past few weeks, including experienced pilots on the congestion problem at NAIA. I am getting the impression that the best solutions with the most immediate impact involve creative thinking, not more big ticket capex.

We have apparently been waylaid by the debate on whether it is better to have another runway parallel to the main one or if a new terminal will fix things up. One expert summarized the key to a solution: Runway Occupancy Time (ROT).

Simply put, attention must be focused in minimizing the time an aircraft is on the runway to allow the next aircraft to either takeoff or land as quickly as possible. Focusing on ROT will optimize the limited capacity at NAIA.

That just requires policy and behavioral changes, not new toys, not a new terminal, not new studies we have to wait a long time for. The infrastructure needed to reduce ROT is rather simple: two quick exit taxiways for the main runway.

Indeed, a Google map of NAIA shows the current exit taxiways are inadequate because an aircraft that missed one will have to be on the runway longer to catch the next one. The Google maps also show other international airports abroad have more of those quick exit taxiways.

It isn’t as if our officials are unaware of this need. A May 8, 2012 press release from DOTC published by the Official Gazette talks of then DOTC Secretary Mar Roxas announcing several measures to address current runway congestion issues at NAIA. One of those has to do with quick exit taxiways.

“To enhance the runway’s capacity, Roxas said that the construction of two rapid exit taxiways worth P300M each is being fast-tracked and is expected for completion early next year.” (That was in May 2012 or almost three years ago.)

We all know that plans to build those quick exit taxiways did not progress beyond talk and press releases. Way back in 2012, the Official Gazette reported that “DOTC has come up with a number of other immediate short-term and long-term measures in increasing the capacity of NAIA’s runway and demand management redistribution.” A review of those announced measures shows nothing much had been done.

Another of Mar Roxas’s proposed measures to address congestion at NAIA as reported by the Official Gazette: “Transfer of general aviation flights to Sangley. Manila International Airport Authority General Manager Angel Honrado said they are in discussions with the Department of National Defense to transfer all general aviation flights to Sangley Point in Cavite City within a month. There are 82 general aviation flights per day in NAIA, including fish runs. This measure will help decongest the NAIA runway.”

It seems DOTC and NAIA officials lost their balls when influential people with private planes at NAIA protested. This promise never progressed beyond several press releases. The small planes with two to four passengers take the same time as a large Airbus 320 with a hundred or more passengers to take off or land and are a big contributor to congestion.

I have a copy of a power point presentation of IATA on capacity enhancement at NAIA. IATA is saying the problem with NAIA is runway use optimization. Another terminal is not going to help. There is however, a division of opinion on the third runway.

One school of thought feels a third runway will not contribute significantly to increasing aircraft movements at NAIA if the same old policies on use of runways remain.

DOTC Usec Timmy Limcaoco in an e-mail to me pointed out “the third runway will be a dependent (and not independent) parallel runway. Being a dependent runway, there can be no simultaneous take-offs or landings at both runways. The required separation distance (for safety purposes) between the two runways is insufficient to designate them as independent.”

Additionally, one expert told me that “since an aircraft using the third runway will have to cross the main runway 06/24 to get to the terminal, it can disturb as much as 12 -18 movements out of the main runway’s movements.” But another debunked this claim because an aircraft crossing at the furthest end of the main runway will supposedly not disturb operations.

Anyway, I tend to agree with a group of experts who think we can put the debate on the third runway aside for the moment and just work on what can be done by changing policies and tightening operating procedures.

First of all, they think there is no technical basis for that often repeated claim of officials that artificially puts a ceiling of 40 movements per hour at NAIA. I am told there is no good basis for that number because before Mar Roxas gave that number, they were doing as much as 55 movements per hour.

Indeed, London Gatwick does 55 movements per hour on one runway. La Guardia in New York does 80 an hour on the same cross runway configuration as ours. Even Jaime Caringal of DOTC’s Project Development Office in a presentation I saw, conceded that cross runways like NAIA can do 60 movements an hour.

Limiting movements to 40 also gives air traffic controllers no incentive to allow more even if it is possible. Indeed, they have a disincentive to do more as no good deed remains unpunished in government.

Some experts I consulted also want CAAP to allow again takeoffs at Runway 31. They do not buy the observation that there are significant obstacles at the end of that runway that affects safety. For additional safety, maybe a billboard atop a restaurant in front of the Domestic Terminal should be removed.

An IATA study suggests that NAIA should be able to move 70+ aircraft per hour. Currently, with Runway 31 closed, the traffic gets backed up when using Runway 13 because the departing aircraft has to cross the main Runway 06/24. When Runway 31 opens again, it should be easy to achieve an additional 20 departures per hour from Runway 31 without any change to the current utilization of the main runway, one expert said.

Regardless, with the correct policies and procedures in place some experts still see a significant improvement from the current 40 movements even without the return of Runway 31. “Just optimizing the takeoff procedures could probably net additional 5-10 movements per hour using the current runway configuration.” Only a sense of urgency is needed among our officials.

Experts also call for training of air traffic controllers at international airports. Indeed, exposure of our air traffic controllers to foreign airport operations would facilitate transfer of know how, but there is danger they may decide to stay abroad.

I am told brain drain is a big problem. We lose the best air traffic controllers because government cannot match the pay and benefits offered by foreign airport authorities. That’s a safety concern in my book if the more competent ones leave.

It is possible that our air traffic controllers are also slowing down work to call attention to their plight. They know they deserve more pay and perks because their work is the same as the air traffic controllers elsewhere in the world and they get pitifully lower salary and perks.

A good solution is to outsource air traffic control to a reputable foreign entity that does this sort of business worldwide with the condition that they absorb the current ATCs.

When I was in Toronto, I was told that they outsource air traffic operations. This way, we get world class controllers who get world class pay for this very taxing work plus world class training and supervision.

On another point… Better coordination with the airlines, one expert said, will help revise procedures and policies that will optimize runway utilization. IATA calls it Airport Collaborative Decision Making (ACDM), which describes how runway slot management is supposed to work.

In the short- to medium-term, there should be capacity gains by working with the airlines to design approach procedures for each runway. Agreement could also be reached on reducing separation standard for arrivals sequencing.

The poor implementation of ACDM in the Philippines, as IATA recently complained about in Congress, appears to be a problem. In NAIA operations, the ‘Collaborative’ part with its main users is apparently missing, if IATA is to be believed.

We will have to live with NAIA at least 10 more years or more. A new airport will take that long to put up. And we may well decide NAIA is worth keeping too after the new airport is up, for the same reasons Japan chose to keep Haneda.

Reading the three year old press releases of Mar Roxas made me feel like being on a treadmill… getting very tired but getting nowhere fast. We deserve better.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


  1. The best solution i think is by letting naia co trolled by changi airport. Changi have the necessary experience in handling operations and beyond thinking interms of i frastractures.

  2. I don't know if the backup is all day. But if it is only like 12-4 everyday. Restrict private planes during those hour at NAIA.

  3. this needs to be figured out..I hope it does not fall or keeps falling back like the LRT problems..a good and serviceable transportation infrastructure is needed to support the economy. I was just at T3 last week airconditioning was horrible! compared to T1 there was space yes...but IMHO 5J should be in T1 and have all international carriers on T3...........I guess what i am saying is we need to competent and able people running our airports and transportation Sec. Jun "Pabaya" at best lame.

  4. First thing's first: acknowledge that a problem exists. Unfortunately, NAIA's management would rather issue blanket denials or lame-arsed excuses than face a problem head-on. When people talk about massive delays due to air traffic congestion in NAIA, GM Honrado simply says there is no congestion problem. When IATA said that runway and taxiway signage at NAIA are woefully inadequate and could lead to accidents, he dismissed that finding, saying pilots carry charts with them anyway and don't need signs. Say what? What an embarrassment! How can any problem be solved when the very person charged with looking for solutions is part of the problem itself?

    It's about time that sh*t-for-brains GM is changed, but then again he thinks along the same lines as his equally clueless President/cousin (cronyism and nepotism are alive and well in the Aquino Version 2 regime). So let's not hold our breaths.