CEBU CITY, August 9, 2003 (STAR) The Philippine Airlines (PAL) has threatened to stop all its operations in and out of the Mactan Cebu International Airport unless immediate repairs are undertaken on its vastly deteriorated runway.

The announcement, made by PAL president and chief operating officer Avelino Zapanta in a press conference here the other day, immediately sent shock waves in the Cebu business community because of its potential of wreaking havoc on the local economy.

"There is a need for the government to address the problem immediately because if PAL makes good its threat, this would translate into further economic losses for Cebu," said Carlos Co, president of the Cebu Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Zapanta said PAL, which operates 16 flights in and out of Mactan daily, might be constrained to cease its Cebu operations unless the repairs are made, saying the "advanced state of the runway’s deterioration poses a hazard to aircraft operations."

He said they have brought the matter to the attention of President Arroyo and Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza but that the problem has remained unacted upon.

Court imbroglio

Zapanta recalled that PAL first raised the problem of runway deterioration two years ago but that the matter appears to have gotten snagged in a court imbroglio over who has the right to undertake the repairs.

Echelon Industries, a US-based firm, won the bidding last year to undertake the runway repairs but the Mactan Cebu International Airport Authority (MCIAA) refused to award the contract after receiving alleged derogatory reports about the company.

Echelon later went to court and won a temporary restraining order to stop the MCIAA from undertaking the repairs by itself or awarding the contract to another contractor.

Echelon country manager Cris Saavedra belittled PAL’s threat to cease its Cebu operations, saying he suspects the move was made to pressure the court to lift the restraining order. The court is expected to hear on MCIAA’s motion to lift the order on Monday.

Saavedra said Echelon would pose no objection to the lifting of the restraining order provided the MCIAA awards the contract to the company.

But Zapanta said PAL is not at all interested in the issues now subject to litigation, only in finding an immediate solution to the problem.

"It is coming to the point where PAL is already seriously thinking that, for the sake of our clientele, for the sake of our passengers, crew and of course, our aircraft, we may have to consider stopping our operations in Cebu," he said.

Operational safety

Zapanta said PAL is aware that its threat is not good for the Cebu community, especially since through the years the airline has been a catalyst in Cebu’s economic progress and development.

"But airline operational safety is a primordial concern and it has come to the point where our pilots have become very wary about the condition of the runway," he said.

An Australian consultant, Barry McCue, alerted the MCIAA as far back as two years ago about the dangers arising from the "rapid breakdown" of the runway and advised its immediate rehabilitation.

Capt. Johnny Andrews, PAL vice president for flight operations, said the severe condition of the Mactan airport runway is telling heavily on flight operations.

He said the airline has to frequently change tires after each touchdown because of the serious lacerations they suffer from the damaged runway surface.

The PAL officials said even Air Transportation Office chief Adelberto Yap has acknowledged the situation after airlines other than PAL such as Cathay Pacific, which operates direct flights between Cebu and Hong Kong, also complained about the runway condition.

Zapanta quoted Yap as saying that he was seriously considering the issuance of a "notice to airmen" about the hazards of flying to Mactan. Such a notice, if issued, will effectively close the Mactan airport to all civilian air traffic, he said.

Airport manager Angelo Verdan corroborated this by admitting that Cathay Pacific officials have verbally complained to him about the condition of the runway.

Daily flights

The airport handles an average of 124 flights daily. Of these, 63 percent are commercial flights, while the remaining 37 percent consist of general aviation as well as military flights, the airport being just adjacent to the Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base.

There are at least 10 local and foreign airlines operating in Mactan.

Passenger traffic at the airport over the last 12 years grew by an annual average of 23 percent for international flights and .03 percent for domestic flights.

An average of 1.7 million domestic passengers and 500,000 international passengers arrive and depart through Mactan each year.

The airport handled 48 million kilos of cargo last year, with international and domestic cargo increasing at an annual average growth of eight percent and .04 percent, respectively.

No data were available as to how much PAL handles of the passenger and cargo traffic through the airport. But PAL spokesman Simoun Canton Jr. said the airline’s 16 daily flights in and out of Mactan handle roughly 4,000 passengers.

The airport was originally built in the 1960s as a base of the Philippine Air Force and used extensively by United States military forces then involved in the Vietnam War.

After the war in Vietnam and the departure of the Americans, the Philippine Air Force moved to a portion of the vast base and turned over the rest to commercial aircraft operations, with operations in the old Lahug airport moving into Mactan in the 1970s. — Freeman News Service

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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