Beyond Manila,  Bulacan

On San Miguel’s New Manila International Airport Project in Bulacan

Some time ago, the Urban Roamer talked about San Miguel Corporation’s New Manila International Airport plan which was envisioned to be built on reclaimed land off the coast of Parañaque and Las Piñas. However, it faced stiff opposition, partly because of how it adversely affect the LPPCHEA which is a protected habitat and sanctuary near the planned airport.

Eventually, San Miguel backed out of the airport plan in the area. But it did not abandon the airport plan itself. Instead, the company set on building the airport up north near the coast of Bulakan town in Bulacan. This time, fortune was on the conglomerate’s side, with no challengers bidding for this Bulacan airport project and the eventual green light given by the Department of Transportation.

By all intents and purposes, San Miguel Corporation’s airport dreams are beginning to be realized. But it must be stressed, “beginning” is the operative word in that sentence. The real work is about to begin.

The Vision

site of the New Manila International Airport

The New Manila International Airport is envisioned to have 4 to 6 parallel runways in total, with an initial of 2-4 runways to be built with room to add 2 more in the future. While the airport will have only one terminal building built, (for now at least) it can accommodate up to 100 million passengers annually. That’s about thrice the current passenger capacity the present NAIA and its 4 terminal buildings are handling.

It must be noted though that there is no official design yet as to what the airport will look like. All the images you see of the “New Manila International Airport” are just artistic interpretations to at least provide some sort of visualization. In fact, at this time of writing, there is no news yet as to who its architect will be, though there are reports that San Miguel has tapped the help of Inchon International Airport Corporation, the operators of South Korea’s Inchon Airport (a top 3 in the world’s best airports as per Skytrax) to help design the airport.

UPDATE (8/8/2019): A day after the original publication of this post, San Miguel has officially unveiled the artist render for the New Manila International Airport, which you can check out in the video below.

The airport itself though is just part (though a big part at that) of the plan San Miguel has in mind for the area where the airport is to be built. Actually, San Miguel has in mind a 2,500-hectare “aerotropolis,” with residential, industrial, and commercial areas to be built around the airport. Admittedly though, these developments are concerning due to a couple of things: one, how would these developments cope with the noise generated in the airport; and two, these developments may be a hindrance to possible expansion plans for the airport. But as the plans have yet to be finalized, we’ll just have to keep a close watch on the developments.

The Challenges

Just because the New Manila International Airport project was able to proceed thus far does not automatically mean it’s smooth sailing from here on. As the plans are being finalized as to how it will look like, the task now is for San Miguel to adequately address three main challenges in realizing this project, namely:

  • Environment – The land the airport will be built on is actually land that is notorious for being constantly hit with floods, not to mention the land itself being a low-lying area, is affected by high tides as well. There is also the concern that the project will affect the livelihood of the people in the area. In return, San Miguel has assured that the airport project will not bring such adverse effects and that the project will also address the flooding problem not only for the airport to succeed but also to benefit Bulakan town and neighboring areas in Bulacan province.
  • Connectivity – Currently, there are no major road or rail networks that will connect the area where the airport will be built to the rest of Bulacan and nearby areas, especially Metro Manila. For this, San Miguel has promised to build an expressway to connect the airport to the North Luzon Expressway at least and an “airport express” rail service that links the airport to EDSA. It must be noted that these are still plans that are subject to change so we will see how these will turn out.
  • Experience – It must be noted that San Miguel is not that new in the airport business. However, its first venture, the construction of the new Caticlan Airport in Aklan, AKA the gateway airport to Boracay, has drawn a “mixed” reaction at best. For one, the airport’s construction has been subject to long delays, with no date yet for its completion. Secondly, the prior design San Miguel had in mind for Caticlan Airport was derided by many quarters for looking like one of their beer factories: plain and uninspired for a gateway to a premier tourist destination, which may have eventually contributed to the new airport’s delay. Regardless, the prospect of San Miguel designing an airport much bigger than Caticlan does not exactly inspire confidence. Hopefully, the Inchon Airport folks would guide the conglomerate on how to build a better-looking airport and within the promised timeframe.

The Plan

According to San Miguel Corporation’s chairman Ramon Ang, the airport will be finished in 6 years time once construction starts. The work will already include the aforementioned flood mitigation work and the building of the road and rail networks. Whether they will be able to deliver on that timeline (taking into account its track record in Caticlan and the delays in another San Miguel project the mass transit Line 7) remains to be seen.

As for the cost, San Miguel Corporation will shell out around PHP 735 billion (US$14.5 billion) for the project. By itself. That’s right, the government will not be spending a dime in the construction. It may sound good to hear but in reality, this gives rise to a more “complicated” situation in which the government would not be able to guarantee flights to and from the planned airport, precisely because the airport is not government-funded. Thus, San Miguel would have to do the work of trying to attract airlines to fly to and from the New Manila International Airport.

What about Clark, NAIA, and Sangley?

Because the government is not going to guarantee flights to San Miguel for the New Manila International Airport, it is safe to assume that the concurrent developments happening in Clark, NAIA, and Sangley being undertaken by the government are still proceeding as usual. In fact, the construction of Clark’s new terminal building is more than halfway done, the rehabilitation of NAIA is still proceeding (though personally, I’m not keen on their “third runway” plans), and the work is ongoing to renovate the current Sangley airport so it can accommodate general aviation* by December this year.

But what about the plans for Sangley’s expansion and the new Manila International Airport there? The plans are still proceeding despite the San Miguel development. In fact, there are currently two proposals being reviewed, pending a final decision by the National Economic and Development Authority and the Department of Transportation: one by the Solar group and one by the Cavite provincial government, which the government is leaning towards at the moment.

In any case, the future of Manila’s airport network seems to be taking shape. From the looks of it, we might be seeing a tri or quad-airport setup to serve Metro Manila and the expanding urban areas nearby, with the present NAIA, (which the government intends to shut down), Clark, the expanded Sangley, and Bulakan. With the expanding population and increasing number of tourist arrivals in recent years, having more than one airport that can handle all the air traffic is very much welcome.

*Let it be clear that general aviation means flights that are non-commercial in nature such as charter, corporate, military and pilot training flights that commonly use light aircraft and fewer passengers.

Acknowledgements as well to BusinessWorld and SkyscraperCity

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