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Friday, September 10, 2010

Airphil Express Launches Sulu Flights After Runway Upgrades

Airport runway upgrades completed in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, and Jolo,
Sulu, through a US-Philippines partnership has led to the
establishment of new commercial flights between those provincial
capitals and this city.

Airphil Express will fly a 77-seater Bombardier Q400 along the
Zamboanga-Jolo route three times weekly beginning September 11, and
along the Zamboanga-Bongao route four times weekly from September 10,
with connecting flights to Manila and Davao, according to Maria Java,
the airline’s vice president for marketing and media.

Chambers of commerce, together with the two provincial governments,
worked with the airline and the Civil Aviation Authority of the
Philippines (CAAP), to expedite the establishment of the new flights,
which they expect will lead to an increase in trade and other business
activity in the Sulu Archipelago.

“Even before the runway was inaugurated, we were pushing to get new
air routes set up,” said Robert Tan, president of the Tawi-Tawi
Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We met with Airphil Express
officials in Manila to persuade them and to offer the chamber’s
support.”

The airport runway upgrades, which were built under a partnership
between the Philippine and US governments, were implemented by the
Department of Transportation and Communications, the provincial
governments of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu, and USAID’s Growth with Equity in
Mindanao (GEM) Program, under the oversight of the Mindanao
Development Authority.

The Tawi-Tawi runway was extended by the GEM Program from 1,608 to
1,920 meters, and widened from 18 to 30 meters. The Jolo airport
runway was likewise extended by GEM, from 1,200 to 1,845 meters, and
widened from 18 to 30 meters. Both are now all-concrete runways.

The improvements, which allow both airports to accommodate
larger-bodied aircraft such as Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s, drew the
interest of commercial airlines.

“It felt like landing on runways in the US, built to the highest
standards,” said Captain Patrick Roa, Airphil Express’ chief pilot for
safety and security, who flew the evaluation flights in July. “The
surface is grooved to ensure safety even during heavy rainfall.”

“The old runways could accommodate only 19-seater planes and were
often closed for patch-up repairs,” said Luis Go, president of the
Sulu Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We then had no choice but to
travel to Zamboanga by sea, which can be uncomfortable and takes a
day.”

“Flying to Zamboanga from Jolo takes twenty minutes, compared with
traveling ten hours by inter-island ferry,” said Java, who added that
traveling by ferry from Zamboanga to the more distant Bongao took
seventeen hours. “We could see the market potential from the number of
people going by boat.”

She added that flight cargo from the two island-provinces would likely
include high-value fruits and marine products such as live fish, among
other commodities.

Businesspeople said that the new flights, are substantially cheaper
than those offered by the airline that previously plied the routes
with smaller aircraft, would have a big impact on the local economy.

“People can now easily go to Zamboanga, which is the commercial hub of
western Mindanao, to order stock and conduct business,” said Go. “Even
buyers from Manila and Cebu will be more likely to travel here.”

He added that the air service would also provide Sulu residents with
better access to government, medical and banking services on the
Mindanao mainland

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