Assessing Air Travel Infrastructure in Metro Manila: Four Key Airports and Their Role

By Divine Grace C. Bariuan

The Four Key Airports

Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA)

NAIA, named after former Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., serves as the Philippines’ premiere international gateway. It is located in Pasay City, Metro Manila, and comprises of four passenger terminals.

According to the Manila International Airport Authority, NAIA handled a total of 277,530 aircraft movements and passenger traffic of 47.9 million in 2019 (pre-pandemic), while 213,317 and 30.9 million, respectively, in 2022 (post-pandemic). Latest data shows, from January to May this year, NAIA had 109,757 flights and 18.3 million foot traffic.

NAIA’s key strength is its proximity to Metro Manila and major business districts, making it convenient for travelers. It has well-established international connections, serving as a crucial gateway for both domestic and international flights.

Being the country’s principal gateway, NAIA has been in the headlines rather often due to its outdated facilities and operational inefficiencies. The airport faces significant challenges, including congestion and limited runway capacity, which results in delays. Infrastructure issues, such as aging facilities in some terminals, have also been a concern. Not to mention, the airport’s four terminals total capacity is only 31 million passengers annually.

Clark International Airport

Clark International Airport, located in the Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga, is a former U.S. military airbase with a rich history. After Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it was converted into a civilian airport. Clark Airport has a large aircraft runway and a single terminal serving both domestic and international flights. It provides another entry point into the country.

Clark International Airport’s greatest asset is its function as an alternative gateway to the Philippines, thereby reducing congestion at Manila’s NAIA Airport. Because of its strategic location, it is convenient to popular tourist destinations such as Angeles City and Mount Pinatubo. Modernization efforts have improved the airport’s facilities and services, allowing it to compete on a global scale.

On the other hand, the primary flaw of this airport is its distance from Manila, which results in longer travel times for passengers arriving from the capital. There are few transportation options between Clark and Manila, which can be inconvenient. Furthermore, despite ongoing modernization efforts, the airport may lack some of the amenities and conveniences found in larger international airports.

Sangley Point Airport

Sangley Point, situated in Cavite, Philippines, initially served as a U.S. Navy naval station. Plans have been in the works to transform it into a commercial airport to alleviate congestion at NAIA. As of February of this year, the Yuchengco Group’s House of Investments signed a joint agreement with the local government of Cavite. This airport project is expected to cost $11 billion.

Sangley Point Airport’s potential strength lies in its ability to reduce congestion at NAIA if successfully developed. Its strategic location near Manila Bay offers the opportunity for efficient air and sea connectivity, which can be advantageous for both passengers and cargo transportation.

Due to the fact that this airport is still in its developmental phase, its current weakness is centered on the unpredictability of infrastructure development, funding, and regulatory approvals.

Bulacan International Airport (NMIA)

The Bulacan International Airport, also known as New Manila International Airport (NMIA), is a proposed airport project in Bulacan province, north of Manila.  Multiple runways and terminals are reportedly included in the project to accommodate a large number of passengers.

As of July 2023, according to its developer, San Miguel Aerocity Inc., at least 70 percent of Bulacan International Airport’s land has been developed. At this rate, the airport’s land development could be completed by the first quarter in 2024. After that, construction of the airport’s facilities is expected to begin.

Strategically positioned to serve both Metro Manila and Central Luzon, this project has the potential to become a vital transportation hub. In addition, the scope of the project includes modern facilities and ample runway capacity.

At this time, the primary weakness of the project is the uncertainty surrounding its development and funding, both of which are crucial success factors. In addition, potential environmental and logistical obstacles must be addressed during the implementation of the project.

Addressing Airport Requirements: Challenges and Prospects

Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Clark International Airport, Sangley Point Airport, and Bulacan International Airport are part of a broader plan to enhance air transportation infrastructure in the Metro Manila area and nearby provinces. However, whether these four airports alone are sufficient to service all the area and its nearby provinces depends on various factors, including passenger demand, infrastructure development, and transportation connectivity.

Passenger Demand

Metro Manila is a densely populated urban area where air travel is in high demand. As the principal international gateway to the Philippines, NAIA manages a substantial portion of this demand. Even though the other airports can help alleviate congestion, given their location, they may not be enough to meet the region’s total air travel needs.

Infrastructure Development

The success of airports in servicing a region depends on the infrastructure available, including runways, terminals, and transportation links. There are plans for substantial expansion and modernization at Clark International Airport and Bulacan International Airport, which could significantly increase their capacity and ability to serve the region.

Transportation Connectivity

These airports must be easily accessible from Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces via efficient transportation links, such as highways and rail connections. These must be developed and upgraded to facilitate the efficient movement of passengers.

Future Developments

Plans and strategies for air transportation infrastructure can evolve over time. The new airports in Bulacan and Cavite, as well as the expansion of the Clark airport, are essential in order to meet the region’s expanding needs.

The question still remain, are these four airports enough to service Metro Manila?

Given the current airport utilization rate, how many airports does Metro Manila actually require? There are currently four popular options for addressing the NAIA issue: (1) restore and maximize NAIA (2) construct the Sangley Point International Airport (SPIA) in Cavite; (3) build the New Manila International Airport (NMIA) in Bulacan; and/or (4) use the infrastructure of the Clark International Airport (CRK) in Pampanga.

In conclusion, while the four airports mentioned represent significant steps toward improving air travel in Metro Manila, additional factors such as infrastructure development, passenger demand, and transportation connectivity will play a significant role in determining whether they are sufficient to meet the region’s long-term air travel needs.