It was supposed to be a secret but the presence of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile had to be explained.
A world-class airport rising out of a rustic town in the home province of Enrile is being harnessed as a hangar for private planes of jet-setting billionaires and executives of top corporations in Asia.
Alfonso Cusi, former chief of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philipiness and general manager of the Philippine Ports Authority during the Arroyo administration, revealed that he was brokering a deal for the entry of a foreign business group to develop the international airport in Lal-lo, Cagayan, as a cheaper alternative for private jets currently docking at the airports in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in China.
“I’m not supposed to divulge details of the project at this point because there are other airports looking to get this lucrative business. There’s a very strong interest outside of the Philippines to set up a venture similar to what we are rolling out at Lal-lo. We’re still finalizing the deal, but we’re confident we will get it,” Cusi said in a phone interview.
Cusi said he was forced to reveal the plans for the Lal-lo airport to explain the presence of Enrile during the initial testing on Tuesday of its 46-meter-wide, 2,200-meter-long runway.
“He was there to witness the progress in the airport which is a key component of the Cagayan Export Zone. But he is not part of the business group investing in the hangar, it’s all foreign,” he said.
Enrile expects President Aquino to inaugurate the $34.2-million northern Luzon gateway, which would have a paved apron and tarmac, a control tower and a 1,000-square-meter terminal building, Cusi said.
But Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a text message last night that the Palace had not received any invitation for the planned opening.
Cusi spoke to the Inquirer amid speculation that Enrile’s visit was timed ahead of Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon’s scheduled inspection on Wednesday of the used-car importation trade at Port Irene, 40 kilometers from Lal-lo.
Biazon decided to visit Port Irene to address concerns that the used-car importers in the area were openly defying a Supreme Court order upholding Malacañang’s ban on second-hand car imports. Some 600 more vehicles arrived at the port a few weeks after the decision was handed down.
Cusi explained that putting up a jet hangar at Lal-lo airport would create a “magnet” for other businessmen to set up shop in the area.
He said the hangar, which had been fortified to withstand typhoons, would be complemented by an aircraft repair and maintenance unit to generate more business in the area.
“We expect pilots and their crew to stay in the airport for a few days so there will be a need for hotel and entertainment facilities in the area. We expect to hire hundreds of Filipinos for the hangar and repair and maintenance facility and they would need housing in the area too. More investors are coming in for trickle-down services like medical needs, flying school, tourism and support systems for the community,” Cusi said.
The rising number of business jets in the region has pushed up rental rates in existing Asian airports as more Gulftsreams, Falcons and Airbuses fight for limited hangar space, he said.
“We can build a core client base at Lal-lo airport due to the cheaper airspace rates and fast processing of entry and exit permits in the country compared to other countries. We’re confident that the additional cost of flying from Hong Kong or China to Cagayan would be more than offset by the savings from the rental,” Cusi said.
Cusi said the main target of the Lal-lo jet hangar was the Hong Kong International Airport where no additional hangar space was expected until its scheduled expansion in 2023. “That is a long time to build a relationship with clients. We’re planning to sign 25-year lease agreements in Lal-lo,” he said.—With a report from Michael Lim Ubac