, January 11, 2005 (STAR) By Sandy Araneta and Edu Punay  -  Airline companies are demanding a "written" commitment from the government ensuring the opening of the disputed Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA-3) this year.

"We need a written memo saying the airport will open at a particular date. We will be needing this to be sent to head offices abroad to justify our preparation," said Santiago Medrana III, vice chairman of the Airline Operators Council (AOC) and Lufthansa station manager.

The AOC is an international organization consisting of 32-member airlines and six ground handling services companies operating in the NAIA complex.

In a related development, the Pasay City regional trial court (RTC) judge handling the government’s expropriation of the NAIA-3 may face a complaint before the Supreme Court if he refuses to inhibit himself from the case.

Solicitor General Alfredo Benipayo issued this warning yesterday to RTC Branch 117 Judge Henrick Gingoyon during the hearing of the government’s motion for reconsideration on the court’s Jan. 4 order, requiring the government to pay $62.3 million to Piatco as initial payment for "just compensation."

Some members of the AOC attended the press conference yesterday afternoon at the NAIA Centennial Terminal 2 called by the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA). It was presided by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza and MIAA general manager Alfonso Cusi.

The AOC said the Board of Airline Representatives, another major international airline organization in the country, shares the same position.

Mendoza declined to commit to the demand but said "this will be discussed" in a meeting on Wednesday.

For Lufthansa, Medrana said it would take about six months, from the time they receive a notice or commitment, for the transfer of operations from NAIA 1 to Terminal 3 to take place.

"We are looking at June and that is basically six months (from now). We haven’t started with anything yet," he said.

Cathay Pacific needs a six-month lead time upon the signing of contract.

Station manager Ed Monreal said they have asked the MIAA for the leeway, citing Cathay Pacific is one of the biggest airlines operating in the country with six flights daily to and from Manila and Hong Kong.

He noted the budget for transfer has to be prepared first as it "would cost the airline company millions of pesos."

"Airlines have to re-budget for the office and the lounges. And this is no joke," Monreal stressed.

The airline official added that other particulars such as building the infrastructure, computer connections and "links with providers" have to be readied.

Then, there is the training of airline staff, he added.

"The connections will take about eight weeks. We have to link the system with the provider," Monreal said.

Airline company representatives in the press conference all agreed it would take time to prepare the installation of communication lines and publishing of schedules.

Although they said they are willing to back the government’s takeover of the NAIA-3, airline officials reiterated certain factors have to be considered before the transfer takes effect.

Mendoza meanwhile said the government is going to hold another meeting soon to discuss and finalize where they will get the money to finally operate NAIA-3.

"There are a lot of options. There are a lot of offers. As I was saying, airport operation is a very reliable operation. There are local and foreign sources," he said, but declined to discuss the details.

He has asked airline companies to bring all their requirements in the meeting, adding that the government is considering to "issue a contract."

Cusi estimated at around P700 million the ballpark figure in government expenses to have the NAIA-3 operational. This excludes what the airlines will be investing for the construction of their offices and lounges.

For his part, Ermita said even as the appropriation proceeding is being undertaken by the Philippine government, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) assured them that there will be no legal impediment to the resumption of the arbitration of the international courts on the issue.

"After all, what are they after?" said Ermita, referring to the Philippine Air Terminals Co. (Piatco), the private consortium that built NAIA-3.

NAIA-3 has been mothballed for over a year now after the government and Piatco failed to agree on the amount of money spent in constructing the terminal.

In 2002, President Arroyo abandoned Piatco’s contract to build and operate the terminal, claiming that one-sided provisions in favor of the consortium were inserted in the agreement after it was signed.

In May the following year, the Supreme Court voided Piatco’s government contract, ruling that the consortium was not qualified to participate in the 1997 bidding for the contract.

In response, Piatco filed a request for arbitration before the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris, France, while its partner, Fraport filed a request for arbitration with the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington, D.C.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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