22 March 2007

Losing by default

My maiden column already came out in Vox Bikol that hit the newsstands today. This is my second article.

A SCHEDULING quirk had me flying from Manila to Legazpi City last Tuesday morning via Philippine Airlines. The flight was not full, but only a few seats were vacant. But immediately, you can feel that tourism is picking up. There was a group of Japanese businessmen in their suits, in spite of the warm weather early that morning that would only get hot later; behind them are a handful of Europeans should either be going to Donsol or the Camarines Sur Watersports Complex in Pili.

But if PAL seems to be doing well – expected as air travel will peak this summer – Cebu Pacific must be doing much better. During the RDC meeting I attended two weeks ago, a letter from Gateways 21 Holidays was among the attachments to the agenda folder; it announced the introduction of an additional flight that will compete head-on with PAL in the morning time slot starting March 22. In fact, by leaving from Manila at 6:05am, it will bring travelers to Legazpi an hour earlier than its rival, and consequently Manila-bound passengers aboard the return flight.

Visit their respective websites – thanks to the wonders of online booking and ticketing – and you will see why: if you can plan your trips early and stick to it, a one-way Cebu Pacific ticket entitling you a flight onboard the newer Airbus aircraft can only be had for about P1,107, inclusive of taxes and other charges. That’s only about 300 pesos more than the best bus ride available between Manila and Legazpi, onboard the 29-seater aircon coaches that have become the gold standard for land travel to Bicol: definitely not bad if you consider the troubles, not to mention the body pains, that come freely with a nine-hour ride through the pockmarked Quirino Highway!

Compare this with PAL’s P2,843 for the same route, or the P3,252 I paid for the shorter Naga-Manila trip via its sister company Air Philippines, and you will understand why the Gokongwei’s Cebu Pacific has put fear into the eyes of Lucio Tan’s two airlines.

Cebu Pacific’s advantage lies in its early headstart over competitors in adopting the new air travel business model that has actually taken the world by fire: the no-frills, low-cost, affordable flight that boldly promises that it is now time for every Juan to fly. This business model was actually pioneered by Southwest in the US, embraced by Ryanair in Europe, and is the same one powering Tiger Airways and Air Asia in Southeast Asia, which fly to the Philippines via Clark in Angeles, Pampanga.

Why did I bring this up? Because by inaction or lack of imagination of our leaders, especially those who are supposed to have the President’s ear, all of Camarines Sur – including the cities of Naga and Iriga – is missing the benefits of this revolution by default. Actually, Cebu Pacific already looked at the Naga Airport in Pili, indicating interest, because at one point in time they will need additional utilization for new Airbus aircrafts that are in the pipeline. But our airport’s 1,106-meter runway, according to Wikipedia, is not enough to meet the minimum requirements of these planes. The existing Legazpi airport, on the other hand, is 2,280 meters long, although the useful part is actually shorter because of geographical constraints arising from the hills in Daraga.

Ravines at both ends of the existing runway limit its further extension. I am not an engineer, but I would like to think it is an engineering problem that can be solved by an engineering solution. If bridges can be built over rivers and waterways, why not a bridge-like runway extension over the ravines at the far end near Isarog? But quarrying has tremendously lowered the other side, one may argue. But can not earth moved away by quarrying be capable of being moved back, raised up and compacted enough to support the other end of this bridge-like structure?

Look, losing the planned Bicol International Airport to Daraga is bad enough. Initial conservative estimates put its cost at P3.44 billion, and the most optimistic schedule will only see its completion by 2010. I don’t think a bridge-like runway extension – if it were technologically feasible – will cost that much. And even if it were to cost at least half of the amount, it should be the minimum concession Camarines Sur’s leaders should get – if only they are not obsessed with and blinded by short-term political domination and bloodletting that characterize the ongoing electoral exercise.