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What to expect at the new Clark Airport

The decision is final. The Original Proponent Status (OPS) awarded to Megawide Corp. to transform the Ninoy International Airport Complex into a world class airport was revoked with finality by the board of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA). In its official statement, MIAA cited the lack of financial equity as the reason for cancelling the OPS.

I was privy to the case and know that this is only a reason of convenience. Records show that Megawide met all the financial requirements of the government as early as November, 2020. It even issued secondary preferred shares at the Philippine Stock Exchange just to meet the minimum equity required.

This situation is problematic because despite claims that San Miguel Corp.’s Bulacan airport will be operational by 2025, we all know that this is impossible given the magnitude of reclamation and construction works that need to be done. I give it until 2030, at the earliest, since they have not even broken ground yet. In the meantime, the Filipino people will have to contend with the inconveniences of NAIA’s ageing facilities.

The saving grace is that the new terminal of the Clark Airport will soon be operational. The expansion of Clark Airport was a brainchild of Transportation Secretary, Art Tugade, back in 2016. After finalizing the terms of reference at lightning speed, the Bases Conversion Development Authority awarded the construction contract to Megawide Corp. in December 2017. Construction of the P9.36-billion terminal started in early 2018 for which the completed building (without fit-out) was officially turned over to the government last month.

This is a hybrid privatization deal, hence, the builder of the project is a separate entity from that given the rights to operate and maintain the same. In this case, the new operator of the rejuvenated Clark Airport is Lipad Corp., a joint venture between Filinvest Corp., JG Summit, Philippine Airport Ground Support Solutions, Inc. (PAGS), and Changi Airports of Singapore.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the new Clark Terminal, thanks to the invitation of Federico Paolo Santos, an old friend, who is now the Head of Commercial Operations at Lipad. Paolo, along with his staff, Camille Lacson and engineer Roldan Bago, briefed me on the features of the new airport. The building’s shell is finished. When I visited, the place was abuzz with workers doing the fit and finishes.

The installation of modular fixtures such as the check-in counters, immigration booths, security station and the like will follow in the summer. Outside the building, a two storey mall and transport hub will be built, Santos disclosed. About 100 meters away is where the train station of the Tutuban-Malolos-Clark line will terminate. This will be finished in about five years. In the meantime, the terminal is accessible via the SCTEX. The journey from Ortigas Center took me just one hour.

The building has a floor area of 110,000 square meters, four and a half times the size of the existing terminal. It has an annual capacity of 8 million passengers. Its inverted T-shaped layout is reminiscent of the Barcelona airport. The main vestibule boasts of cathedral ceilings made of glued laminated wood from Austria. It is the same material utilized in the award-winning Cebu-Mactan airport. The building’s roofline is inspired by Mount Arayat and Mount Pinatubo, both of which are just 15 kilometers away. In the waiting area, floor to ceiling windows face the airport’s 18 air bridges and two runways. It gives passengers an unobstructed view of the comings and goings of aircrafts.

There are five gates to enter the terminal and surprisingly, none of them have X-ray machines. Passengers need not have their luggage X-rayed upon entry anymore as there are three inconspicuous X-ray machines installed between the check-in counters and baggage routing conveyors. It is the same system used in Doha’s Hamad International Airport. There are 80 check in counters, duly segregated according to airline operators.

I was told that Clark will be utilizing the same carry-on baggage security system as that in Doha, which could be the Smiths Detection’s HI-SCAN 6040 CTiX. This equipment offers advanced screening of carry-on baggage using Computed Tomography.

The amenities of this airport are complete. There are spacious rest rooms for male, female, neutral, and persons with disabilities; prayer rooms; changing and play rooms for children; a clinic; banks; forex exchange counters; car and hotel booking offices, etc. As of the moment, no airline has committed to build their signature lounge yet. Hence, there will be pay-for-use lounges operated by third parties.

The departure and arrival halls are dotted with food and beverage establishments that serve a range of options at varying price points. There will also be a food concourse at the 4th floor with about 20 establishments. On the third floor will be a well-curated duty free area operated by Duty Free Philippines. The arrival area is rigged with eight baggage carousels and a spacious area for meeters and greeters. Lipad is sparing no expense with the fit and finish. Floor and bathroom tiles are imported from Spain and Italy while carpets were imported from the States, declared Mr. Bago. Curiously, the wing facing Mount Arayat will utilize green carpets while the wing facing Manila Bay will be decked with blue carpets.

Overhead, Pampanga-made art installations will complete the look of nature.

I got to meet the Lipad’s new Finance Comptroller, the charming Gina Gopez who told me that operations at the new terminal will commence in July of this year. The old terminal will be used as a temporary vaccination site for the Clark community.

Before the pandemic struck, Clark Airport was already processing some four million passengers a year with 674 flights per week, 202 of which were international flights, the balance were domestic flights. Clark Airport typically services the residents of Central and Northern Luzon all the way to Quezon City and CAMANAVA.

Although flight volumes have plunged to abysmal levels since the contagion, it is expected to climb to pre-COVID-19 levels in mid-2023. This gives the folks at Lipad the time to debug its operating system without much passenger inconvenience.

From now until the Bulacan Airport becomes operational in 2030 or so, NAIA and Clark would have to carry the full load of Luzon’s passenger volume. Records show that NAIA was already operating at 50% beyond its true capacity in 2019, having served 47.8 million passengers that year. By virtue of NAIA’s overflow alone, Clark is seen to reach full capacity by 2024-2025. From then until Bulacan comes online, Luzon faces another crisis of terminal and runway congestion.

It was a mistake to pull the plug on NAIA’s rehabilitation. We could have put airport congestion behind us for good. Now it still looms over our heads. But that is water under the bridge. At least Clark will help fill the gap for the short term.


Andrew J. Masigan is an economist

Twitter @aj_masigan

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