Six years late, Manila's airport terminal limps into action

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2008, 12:00am

Zheng Yanxia was full of praise as she became one of the first tourists to stride the gleaming floors of Manila's newly opened airport Terminal 3.

'It's very clean,' remarked the mainland tourist as she hurried to catch her domestic flight to Boracay on Tuesday, when Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 finally opened to flights, six years overdue.

She compared it favourably to Manila's decrepit international airport terminal.

To Cebu Pacific airline president Lance Gokongwei, opening Terminal 3 'is heaven for us'. He said he looked forward to the day when his airline's international flights could also take off from the new addition.

But that may still be years off, due to safety concerns over the terminal's structural integrity and security measures.

The glossy surfaces that impressed Ms Zheng belie the years of delays that have haunted Terminal 3. The opening was mainly set back because of a tangle of lawsuits between the government and builders.

The troubles could not be entirely concealed on the terminal's big day. All passengers on Tuesday had to walk the tarmac to their planes - the aerobridges had malfunctioned, thanks to rust from years of disuse.

Large portions of the terminal were also sealed off for the safety of the public. This was after 100 square metres of gypsum ceiling collapsed in 2006 and walls and floors cracked.

These incidents prompted the government to hire local firm TCGI Engineers and British structural engineering firm Ove Arup to make an assessment of the terminal's integrity. Their 'pre-final' report, submitted last year, concluded that the terminal 'will collapse' in a magnitude-6 earthquake but could withstand tremors of up to magnitude-4.

Last year President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said of the terminal that 'the ceiling that fell wasn't the only thing in danger of falling. There are more serious dangers from construction and structural defects. We cannot risk the grim consequences of a major earthquake'.

Critics of Mrs Arroyo say the terminal's opening this week was politically timed, so she could claim it as an achievement when she delivers this year's state of the nation address on Monday, but her aides denied this.

Florencio Montalvo Jnr, the airport authority official in charge of safety and technical aspects, told reporters that a third set of consultants - still unnamed - was able to address the safety concerns. He said the consultants used computer simulations to analyse how different parts of the structure would perform under varied earthquake intensities.

Only terminal portions deemed safe during a quake or which had been reinforced were now open to the public, he said.

Richard Gordon, Senate tourism committee chairman, said there was nothing wrong with reinforcing buildings to address safety concerns.

But he noted that the terminal was not ready for international flights - especially to the United States, which required a computer tomography scanner for baggage as a security measure. Terminal 3's scanner is inoperable because the builder's general contractor, Takenaka, is still refusing to give the government the access codes. The government is negotiating a settlement with the firm.