Baguio economy, tourism hinged on only airport in Cordilleras

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Friday, August 30, 2013

BAGUIO has long made its mark in Philippine aviation.

Major Robert Brown of the US Air Corps made his first landing in Baguio in 1919 on the flat and grassy Burnham Park.

The first daily domestic flight in the country, the Manila-Baguio flights of the Philippine Aerial Taxi Company in 1935 later acquired by Philippine Airlines started flying passengers with a five-seater Beech model plane, cargo and mail from the capital to the Luzon highlands through the Polo Field airstrip.


So when did the Loakan airport come into the picture?

It was in 1926 when Governor General Dwight Davis worked for the purchase of a site from the Bayosan, Kalias and Batille families.

Loakan airstrip then was the locals’ favorite duck hunting ground as the airstrip was once a swamp lush with reed-like plants which locals called Doakan.

Loakan as the city’s lifeline

Loakan airport played an important role during the 1990 Luzon earthquake which made the city inaccessible by land for weeks. Supplies and the injured were flown by choppers in and out of the city.

More recently, during the height of Typhoon Pepeng in 2009, the airport was also significant as US aid carried by Chinook helicopters were transported through Loakan.

High value metals like gold from nearby mines and expensive chips and spare parts produced at the nearby Baguio Economic Zone were shipped through the airport from time to time.

This according to Baguio airport manager Sulyn Sagorsor, who recently returned as the head of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines-Baguio, is what should be ingrained in locals – the airport is the city’s lifeline during its early years and should remain as such up to the present.

For the CAAP manager, the city’s tourism and major industrial zones are hinged on Loakan airport.

Without Loakan, not only tourism suffers but the economy as a whole.

Investors who prefer doing business in cities with air access would not bother going up the unreliable Kennon Road for four hours the least.

Sadly, fast forward to 2010, a flight to the Loakan Airport is no longer an option when traveling to Baguio.

When Sky Pasada closed operations in 2011, following Philippine Airlines in 1998 due to company downsizing and Asian Spirit in 2008 when the carrier changed management, airport operations drastically reduced from 19,711 air passengers and 136,926 metric tons of cargo in 2008 to a measly 1,784 passengers and 2,027 metric tons of cargo in 2010.

The airport without any commercial flight and now catering only to general aviation operations and military choppers and planes is also a metaphor for the Cordillera economy which slowed down with a 1.3 percent and sliding down further to a 1 percent growth rate in 2011 and 2012.

Improving the Loakan Airport

For most skilled pilots, Loakan airport is among the most difficult for take-off and landing. With its mean 1,293.75 meters above sea level elevation and steep mountainsides reaching 1,500 meters the airport is a test of skill for aviators who want to apply what they have learned on simulators.

National Economic Development Authority Regional Director Milagros Rimando said this is the reason why the Cordillera Regional Development Council’s Infrastructure Development Committee embarked on a study entitled “Advancing the Baguio Airport Modernization Project” to find out what the government needs to improve.

Department of Tourism regional director Purificacion Molintas, who then headed the RDC’s InfraCom, believed improving the airport facilities will boost tourism in the region as well as encourage more investments in the Summer Capital.

Hotel and Restaurant Association of Baguio president Anthony De Leon also promised support from the Baguio Tourism Council in providing at least 50 percent guaranteed seats to any airline that would engage in business in the city.

But De Leon stressed inviting airlines will never be a problem once airport facilities are upgraded to accommodate modern aircrafts that adhere to international safety standards.

Improving the airport, however, is easier said than done.

This as Molintas said the study made by the TWG showed changing the mindset of local tourists that traveling to Baguio by air is also an option more reliable than by land.

TWG head Engr. Antonio Caluza said there is more to be done in the airport including providing navigational equipment for day and night landing and takeoff, security of the 36.58 hectare airport property and completion of access roads from the other side of the airport.

Caluza said the safety of the airport runway and the aircrafts to be used is the foremost concern of commercial airlines. Other priority projects include continuation of the access road at runway 09 with site acquisition; rehabilitation of the perimeter fence; construction of the new terminal building and an Aeronautical Survey and widening of airport runway strip.

All this the CAAP estimates would cost some P 111 million budget comprising P21 million for land acquisition and contingency, P10 million for the construction of a new terminal building, P50 million for an airfield lighting system, P30 milion for the new perimeter fencing and some P535,000 for the aeronautical survey.

Sagorsor stressed there is also need for upgrading from Visual Flight Route to Instrument Flight Route which needs air space planning design that will be based on an aeronautical survey. This is to provide the airport Approach Control Services which only experts from CAAP could provide.

Caluza and NEDA director Rimando added air passengers are also not a problem. They said airlines with 100 to 200 passenger capacity would be able to reduce ticket prices once they are able to land in an airport with well-equipped facilities.

“There are people who prefer short air travel. Based on the study, tourists, especially from farther provinces are willing to spend for plane tickets,” Caluza said.

Baguio Representative Nicasio Aliping also stressed improving the Loakan facility will be among his priority projects as he scheduled a meeting with DOTC Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya.

“The Baguio airport rehabilitation will have a domino effect on our economy not only in the City but the Cordillera region because of the improved investments and tourism brought about by air access,” Aliping said.

The airport management, meanwhile, sought local government support with better ordinances to protect the airport perimeter and the interests of the only public air facility in the Cordillera.

The TWG study showed Baguio City Council has crafted only two ordinances on the airport.

First, Ordinance 53 dating back in 1947 which prohibits trespassing inside the facility while the second, Ordinance 298 dating back 1958 which prohibits kite flying, loitering or entering of any person, vehicle and animal without permission.

Sadly, these ordinances have been left to rot in filing cabinets of City Council as there is hardly any enforcement with pedestrians from across the airport runway traverse the supposedly secured fsacility daily. Not even CAAP identification cards and airport security could stop pedestrians at times just to ensure runway safety from pedestrians, stray dogs and even cattle.

Only recently, two resolutions have been crafted by the City Council in relation to the airport. In 2008, calling for Southeast Asian Airlines and other airlines to open flights to the city and more recently the Council moved for the improvement of the airport so that the city would be able to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation ministerial meetings here. But these were hardly noticed.

Some 2,000 square meters occupied by 16 lot owners near Runway 09 on the southern tip of the airport is also a problem.

“Among the lot owners that will be affected by the access pass at runway 09, only one family is not amenable to be paid by the government. Claims and documents of five other lot owners are already on process at the CAAP Central Office,” the report added.

The TWG study recommends for the expropriation of these lots as CAAP stressed it is willing to pay legitimate lot owners just to ensure the airport approach remains free of any structures that would affect safety of aircraft landings and takeoffs.

However, families occupying said lots are still reluctant of giving away their lands for the airport expansion as well for completion of the perimeter access road.

Amidst all this, tourism, civil aviation, local government officials remain optimistic facility would be resuscitated as an optional entry point where foreign and domestic travelers can reach the city through budget flights through commercial air carriers.

For them, it is the only way for the city to remain competitive and investor-friendly comparable with other highly urbanized cities which have airports of international standards that would cater to the needs of residents, business and leisure travelers.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on August 31, 2013.


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