Legazpi Airport: Where have all the Airplanes gone?

Source: WowLegazpi.com
It's home to the luxurious Misibis Bay resort, swimming with whale sharks in Sorsogon, ATV eco-tourism adventures, and the famous Mayon Volcano. It's even within reach of the CamSur Watersports Complex and the spectacular Caramoan Islands, home to the Survivor television series. But in spite of the many draws for tourists in the Bicol region, Legazpi airport remains left behind as new airlines enter the Philippine market and expand service all over the country.

Just the opposite seems to be happening at Legazpi airport which faces further reductions to the number of flights it offers as the major airport serving the Bicol region. It all started on May 11, 2013 as Zest Air pulled out its daily flight to Manila. PAL Express will be next in line as it cancels its flights from Legazpi to Cebu on May 31. This leaves Legazpi with PAL Express daily service to Manila and Cebu Pacific flights to Manila and Cebu. Losing the additional flight capacity for inbound tourists is not good news for Bicol. It can only be assumed that airlines believe their aircraft would be better utilized on more profitable routes elsewhere. But Southeast Asian Airlines (SEAIR) seems to hold faith with Legazpi as their CEO announced recently that the city is the next intended domestic destination for the airline. But no formal announcements have been made yet.

What seems to be a relatively quiet airport these days was once a hub of activity. Prior to the disastrous labour strike in 1998 which caused Philippine Airlines to temporarily cease operations, Legazpi Airport served as the airline's hub in the Bicol region serving Manila, Cebu, Masbate, Virac, and even Catarman. The airport event played host to Pope John Paul II when he visited the Philippines in 1981 arriving in Legazpi aboard a chartered PAL Boeing 727. Today the airport serves clients from the local vicinity of Legazpi, Albay as well as transient passengers from southern Camarines Sur and the province of Sorsogon.

Legazpi Airport primarily operates as a sunrise-sunset facility due to its lack of an instrument landing system. However, the airport can handle night landings and take-offs with prior notice. Without the ILS system, low ceilings during inclement weather causes frequent flight cancellations. Being only 12 kilometers from the crater of the Mayon Volcano also disrupts operations as flights must be cancelled during eruptions due to the danger posed by ash fall. Unfortunately for this airport, the future is bleak as plans have already been rolled out to construct a brand new airport in neighbouring Daraga and close the Legazpi airport permanently.

The airport in Daraga now officially named the Bicol International Airport will be intended as the premier gateway to Southern Luzon and the Bicol region. The airport will be the first international airport to be constructed in the area with the aim of bringing in tourists from other parts of Asia to enjoy the numerous tourism opportunities available in the area. The airport will actually be only 2 to 3 kilometres away from the old airport. It was originally scheduled to be completed in 2014 but the slow pace of government has resulted in delays to the project.

The Governor of Albay, Joey Salceda complained that the airport project is already three years behind schedule since its inception and the province does not want to wait any longer. The influx of tourist arrivals has increased 24% in the last four years. Last year alone, the region posted a 49% increase in local and foreign tourists arrivals. The growth rate of foreign tourists in Albay were even 24% higher than the national growth rate making the Bicol region one of the hottest tourist destinations in the country. The governor wants to expedite the construction of the new airport to keep the momentum going to support the increasing trade and tourism in the region.

Unfortunately, construction of the airport has still not begun. The airport suffered another setback at the end of April as the project fell into legal limbo after a disgruntled contractor sued. That seems to have died down but now everyone must wait for the Department of Transportation and Communications to award the contract to begin construction. In October 2012, Sunwest Construction Development Corporation was declared the lowest bidder for its P708-million bid price. The bid ended up being 20% lower than the floor price set by the DOTC. That amounts to a P253-million savings for the government. Sunwest is anxiously awaiting the government to issue a notice to proceed and award it the Bicol International Airport project. Until then, the future of the airport remains delayed.

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