Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Air traffic congestion


My August 12, 2015 column.
I had to travel to Davao City last Friday to attend a family affair.  My flight was at 7:40pm.  I had already checked in through the web to ensure a seat and left for the airport very early.  The two-kilometer ride to the airport from Pasay City took an excruciating one hour and a half, thanks to the bedlam around the airport terminals caused by the construction activities in the area.  I made it to the airport with barely enough time for a quick bite.  Sadly, all that rushing was for naught.  The flight was delayed for almost two hours.  The culprit:  Air traffic congestion.   We arrived in Davao at almost 11:00 PM.
The trip back to Manila was even worse.  Our flight was supposed to leave at 2:30 PM.  We were at the Davao International Airport Terminal before noon.  I knew the flight was going to be delayed because all the other flights were.  Every single announcement in the public address system was about another flight that was going to be delayed due to air traffic congestion in Manila.  Each announcement was met by a collective groan.  We boarded the plane two hours later and waited.  And then waited some more, captive to the government’s ground delay program, which requires that planes traveling to Manila must first require clearance prior to take off to ensure that they do not end up circling Metro Manila waiting for clearance to land.  In our airports, boarding does not guarantee take off.  But better to make passengers stew inside airplanes that are parked in some runway rather than being delayed on air, right?  It’s a good stop-gap measure, but it doesn’t solve the main problem, which is that the air traffic congestion is resulting in untold misery to passengers who suffer from overly delayed or canceled flights.  We’re not yet talking about the costs to government, to industry, to the economy, and to individual citizens. 
Bear with me for a little more digression - I got to get home last Sunday at close to midnight.  The flight could not land at Manila due to weather conditions so we had to be rerouted to the Clark International Airport where we had to wait for another two hours before being granted landing rights in Manila again.  So overall, we were delayed for a grand total of more than six hours!  There were some people who missed connecting flights, but as I will point out later on in this piece, they were just happy to be alive.  Our innate tendency to be grateful for small blessings is one of the reasons why incompetent public officials get away with their inefficiency and incompetence.
Anyway.  Most of us are focused on the problems of the LRT and MRT and the various manifestations of mismanagement at the Land Transportation Office, we seemed to have forgotten the other major shortcoming of the Department of Transportation and Communication, which is its utter inability to address the problems around air transportation in this country.  It is true that there are ongoing improvements in our terminals in Manila and they are now constructing the quick exit ramps out of the terminals, but the problem of air traffic congestion has grown steadily worse.  It has become customary for all flights in this country to be delayed.  The problem not only causes inconvenience and gargantuan costs, it also poses a lot of safety hazards.
Thus, one of the major issues, among many others, that presidential candidate Mar Roxas has to address at one point in the next few months as the 2016 campaign gets underway are the problems of the DOTC, the department which he headed prior to his stint as interior secretary.  If there is a government agency that truly stinks in the eyes of the general public, it is the DOTC.  Of course Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya  should be made accountable for the fact that the problems, instead of being fixed, have only worsened and that the consequent aggravation these have caused to Filipinos have become more magnified over time.  Everyone knows about the many ways that the DOTC is making life difficult for commuters of the LRT/MRT system.  And just when people thought DOTC people have already reached the limits of their sadism, they have decided to implement the shift to a new ticketing system, in the process adding to the confusion and the general chaos at the train terminals.  Those who have renewed their drivers license in the last two months already know that the problems at the LTO are not limited to the fiasco over those overpriced and overhyped plate numbers.  Today, anyone who is applying for a drivers license have to wait for at least four months before they are able to get their plastic licenses - and that is if they are lucky.
Roxas must respond to the general perception that the current mess can all be traced back to the time he was at the helm of the department.  The imbroglio over the maintenance contracts of the MRT, the grand plans to develop various airport terminals that got lost in the political labyrinth of the Aquino administration (there was a time when scale models of the various proposed developments sprouted in all major terminals in the country, most of these have now been forgotten), the various fiascos at the Land Transportation Office - all these and many other aggravations are widely believed to be ideas that Roxas started but were later proved to be impractical or could not be implemented.
We had a Belgian national as a family guest recently.  He was a very genial person who had very nice things to say about Filipinos in general.  The one thing he couldn’t figure out, though, after being stuck in traffic for hours and after experiencing the bedlam at the LRT/MRT system, was how we could be so patient and forgiving of rank inefficiency.  I told him that we’ve been conditioned through the years by our government and religious leaders to be thankful for every little blessing that comes our way that our default attitude during difficult times is to always to see the brighter side of things.  I told him that anecdote about how Filipinos who survived being held at gunpoint would tend to thank criminals for being humane enough to spare their lives and take only their hard-earned money and valuables.  He thought I was being funny and went on to note that other wonderful trait of Filipinos - being able to find something funny even in the face of extreme difficulties.
But this is exactly the attitude that our government and our leaders want us to have:  To be grateful for their supposed selfless service to the Filipino people.  This was the inescapable subtext of the President’s recent State-of-the-Nation Address: This country could have done worse, we could have had another corrupt government, we could have all ended up in the gutter if not for the efforts of our leaders.  True, the efforts have been sorely inadequate, but we are supposed to be thankful for small mercies.

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