A pillar of the flying industry shares ideas
on making the country Asia’s aviation hub
AVELINO DL. ZAPANTA boasts of an experience not too many in the aviation industry can claim – 50 years of service that started from his first stint as luggage kargador (cargo clerk) in 1966 and until recently, as a mentor sharing his expertise to aspiring airline industry workers.
He was also president of the country’s flagship carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) from 1999 to 2004 and the only one who gradually climbed the corporate ladder of the company, taking various leadership roles. Upon retirement from PAL, he took the helm of Southeast Asian Airlines (SEAIR) and turned it into an all turbo-prop airline service provider to one that operates Airbus A320s regionally. Nowadays, he enjoys mentoring to a new generation of aviation students as Lead Professor of WCC Aviation School based in Binalonan, Pangasinan.
“I’ve witnessed the Philippine airline industry’s history for half of the century of its existence,” said Zapanta, who will turn 75 this July 11. “From its ups and downs, I saw how the prosperity and the economy of a country can be tied up with how its aviation industry manages.”
In fact, he wrote and published a book that chronicles the history of flying in the country called “History of Philippine Aviation, 1909-2012” in 2014, an exhaustive nine-year endeavor that involved extensive research, gathering of photographs and materials from newspapers and digging up through libraries, including that of Philippine Airlines’. Prior to this, he wrote Airline Management in 2005, which is now considered a reference learning material for all aviation students in the country.
“For the Philippines to leverage itself as one of Asia’s next aviation powerhouses and for related businesses to prosper, government and industry players must align their thrusts and work collaboratively to take advantage of these developments,” he said.
Becoming an aviation hub
Zapanta thinks the Philippines is in a good situation as far as the aviation industry is concerned.
“We are on our way back to the 1950s when we were one of the leaders worldwide,” he declared. “Our carriers are operating in a way that would show our ability to get back where we were during the golden age of Philippine aviation. No less than the authorities like CAPA (Centre for Aviation) has recognized the fact that the Philippine carriers, particularly our full-service airlines and low-cost carriers, are both leading the way.”
As for the country’s standing among Asian aviation neighbors, Zapanta said that we can claim the title of being an ideal aviation hub.
“Up until 1982, when the new NAIA (both passenger and cargo terminals) was opened, we were still a hub of aviation. We were a hub of aviation before. It’s not Singapore, it’s not Hong Kong, it’s the Philippines (because of our location in between the East and West)! Remember that PAL was Asia’s finest airline because it started international operations, the first among Asian carriers, to fly across the Pacific. And in 1947, it was the first to fly to Europe. We have in our people to make our aviation industry great again,” he revealed.
He also shared that flag carrier PAL is entertaining a very ambitious plan to becoming a five-star commercial airline in the next five years. “As a matter of fact, they’re doing everything to be able to achieve that. They have ordered a lot of wide-bodied aircraft in order to expand their long-haul operation.”
On the part of our low-cost carriers, Cebu Pacific is considered one of the key players in terms of operations in the Southeast Asian region. “It is also a very ambitious airline. As we know, they started operating the A330 for their medium long-haul operation.”
He also noted that Air Asia Philippines, PAL Express and Tiger Air Philippines are doing very well. “They are all registering growth and profitability in the last two years,” he revealed.
Zapanta also cited the fuel price decline in 2015 to 2016 as a big help to carriers as fuel comprises the biggest operating expense for airline operators. “However, we don’t know if this will last as there are indications that fuel producers will once again begin their practice of closing and opening valves of fuel supply in order to play with fuel price. The last two years have been steady, this is the third year that we are enjoying good fuel price,” he revealed.
“When fuel prices went down at that time, operating costs went substantially low to almost 20 percent and airline passengers and even private motorists are enjoying relatively cheaper fuel,” he said, adding that this resulted to “our carriers expanding.”
Room for expansion
Zapanta shared that one of the major impediments to the growth of the aviation industry is the country’s main international gateway, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). “I would say that NAIA is hopeless in the sense that there is no room for expansion,” he said. “It’s because there are no more available time slots for airlines. They cannot expand their schedules there, anymore.”
He also advised that the Manila airport concentrate on the domestic traffic. “After all, the origin destination of domestic traffic is Manila. This is where the provincial people have affinity – their children are in school (there), their businesses. It’s important that we retain domestic operation in NAIA, as we try to take out more of international flights to other airports. In that way, we can accommodate more passengers for domestic operations. That is how you decongest the air traffic in Manila.”
He also looks forward to the opening of the second terminal of Clark, which is one of the most underutilized airports in the country. Once done, it could accommodate up to eight million passengers a year from its present capacity of four million.
“Hopefully by early 2018, it would be made available. Clark is unlimited,” he boldly declared. “The area is so big, it’s more than 200 hectares. And manila has, what, [only] 70 hectares. Still, let us not think of Clark in terms of distance. Let us think in terms of time,” he started, “In terms of distance, it is 80 kilometers away. But in terms of time, it is only as far as from Quezon City to Pasay, in terms of commuting.”
He also added that it is high time for the government to put up a speed railway connecting Manila to Clark airport.
He also mentions the other international gateway that is Mactan-Cebu, which is being groomed in marketing terms as the country’s “boutique airport.” He also included Kalibo Airport which, according to him, was “forced” to become an international airport despite its limited facilities; Caticlan, which can now entertain international carriers; Bacolod, Iloilo, Laguindingan (Cagayan de Oro), Legazpi, Tagbilaran/ Panglao and Puerto Princesa.
“Hopefully, Manila will be decongested because passengers will be going to other airports, like the one in Cebu, and the one in Legazpi. Since 2015, the Asian single aviation market (ASAM) opened the skies within ASEAN, so we expect a lot of ASEAN carriers coming in particularly when we open up the regional points. There will be more flights to Caticlan, to Tagbilaran. Panglao is also being developed and it’s going to open up soon for international tourists. It’s really the airports that need to catch up with the initiative of the airlines. They need them to deploy more flights, they are moving and are ready to expand. Otherwise, they will be the barrier to stunt the growth of the aviation industry,” Zapanta stressed.
Making critical decisions
As a veteran in the Philippine aviation industry, Zapanta said that one of the highlights of his career was when he was chosen as president of Philippine Airlines when it was on the brink of bankruptcy.
“When I took over as president of PAL, it was in a problematic situation. The chairman, Lucio Tan, was putting in $200 million that could easily go out in three months. He was ready to give up PAL anytime,” he recalled. Part of its problem then was the labor problems when both pilot and ground staff unions went on strike.
“No investor in his right mind would like to invest in an airline company with that situation. Lucio Tan was only persuaded [by then President Joseph Estrada] to save the flag carrier.”
Zapanta became the first president of PAL that has come from the ranks. “I have 33 years of association with PAL,” he said.
Having shared the same sentiments with his colleagues, he urged both the pilots and employees unions to a 10-year moratorium on labor action. “Of course, not everyone was happy [with my proposal]. They already thought I was ‘bought out’. But what really convinced them was that if they committed to his proposal, the company would be able to attract investors.”
With this development, PAL posted yearly profits every year (except 2001 when the 9-11 attacks affected the global aviation industry) until Zapanta retired from the company.
Creating world-class aviation professionals
Zapanta recalled how local aviation has evolved dynamically and survived economic challenges throughout the years.
“I’m happy with the state of commercial aviation in the country today, it is very healthy,” he said. However, he said the local industry is losing its quality workers to more lucrative offers abroad, not only the pilots but also the airline technicians and office professionals.
“In terms of manpower, sad to say we still have shortage of mission-critical skills. These skills are so important that the airline can’t operate without them; you have to have the pilots and the mechanics, basically. We have a shortage because they are being pirated by foreign airlines and big airline MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) companies,” he cited.
With the anticipated increase in passenger traffic and the predicted expansion by many airlines, the time is indeed ripe for training many highly qualified Filipino aviation personnel.
Recently, he joined the WCC School of Aviation Business as its new Lead Professor, upon the invitation of its president and CEO Ramon V. Guico III who is also a licensed pilot. Avelino will be responsible for developing and conceptualizing the curriculum that will be offered in the new courses which aims to educate students on how to become competitive in the airline industry. He added that he is focusing on the commercial, business and management aspects of the center.
According to a statement from Guico, “We are pleased to have Dr. Zapanta in WCC. With him onboard we are confident that WCC can achieve its ultimate goal of producing high-caliber aviation professionals that will help propel the local industry into greater global heights. We must look at every possible angle, every advantage, to succeed. If we can get things right for the local aviation industry now, we can expect sustainable growth and brighter future prospects for the entire country ahead.”
Zapanta wholeheartedly agrees. “A business aviation degree program provides students with a well-rounded business foundation exploring all facets of business administration and management like economics, aeropolitics, accounting, marketing, finance, human resources management and valuable global business strategies.”
Having stewarded the aviation industry for almost 50 years, he is now back to being a mentor. “I have to prepare the syllabus of the school. But I like the idea of teaching because I did it before in UP. After writing a book on the history of aviation, I feel that I have given back to an industry that literally and figuratively, gave me miles and miles worth of life lessons.”