ILOILO CITY -- The historic Iloilo airport, the fourth busiest in the country, ceased operations on Tuesday after 70 years of serving millions of passengers.
The old airport in Mandurriao district ended operations following the commercial opening on Wednesday of the new Iloilo International Airport in Santa Barbara and Cabatuan towns, 20 kilometers north of this city.
The last plane out of the old airport was a Manila-bound Cebu Pacific Air at 6:20 p.m. on Tuesday.
Built in 1937, the old airport is located 5 km from downtown. It was so conveniently accessible that taxis, jeepneys and tricycles could unload their passengers a few meters from its front door.
Annual passenger traffic at the old airport was estimated at 700,000 the last two years, making it the busiest domestic airport in the country.
The old airport was also fourth among the busiest airports in the country in terms of passenger and cargo traffic, after the top three international airports -- Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Mactan-Cebu International Airport and Davao International Airport.
In Western Visayas, the Iloilo airport had served the biggest number of passengers since 2005. Bacolod was second with 560,000 passengers and Caticlan (Aklan), third with 520,000.
The growing passenger traffic and the limited facilities at the Mandurriao airport were among the reasons a new airport had to be built.
Being Iloilo?s gateway to the rest of the country, it received and sent off presidents, a Pope, dignitaries and beauty queens. It also has a place in the nation?s history.
Historian Rex Salvilla wrote that the late Lt. Col. Carlos P. Romulo, who later became a brigadier general and president of the United Nations General Assembly, landed at the Mandurriao airfield on his way to Australia during World War II.
On Gen. Douglas McArthur?s orders, Romulo took off from Cabcaben airstrip under heavy Japanese bombardment aboard a US Navy J2F4 patrol plane just after midnight on April 9, 1942. It reached Iloilo airport at dawn.
Voice of Freedom
Salvilla said that while taking their breakfast at the airport restaurant, Romulo and his pilot, US Air Force Lt. Roland Barnick, unashamedly wept upon hearing the fall of Bataan broadcast over the ?Voice of Freedom.?
Romulo flew to Mindanao the following day on another plane.
In December 1944, the Iloilo airfield came under heavy bombardment from B-24s of the American forces.
The 54-hectare property where the old airport stands will be sold through public bidding.
A bidding took place early in May but the Department of Finance declared it a failure because the price offered was below the P1.2 billion set by the government.
The bidders were SM Prime Holdings, Empire East Land Holdings and Robinson?s Land Corp.
Arroyo lauds Tupas, Drilon
In Cabatuan, Iloilo, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lauded on Wednesday a political adversary for his role in the construction of the new 188-hectare airport.
During the airport?s inauguration rites, the President credited Iloilo Gov. Niel Tupas Sr. with the realization of the new Iloilo International Airport.
?Governor Tupas, congratulations. If (former) Gov. (Arthur) Defensor conceived of the airport, you gave birth to this airport,? Ms Arroyo said.
Before the President spoke, Tupas acknowledged Drilon?s contribution to make the P8.76-billion airport a reality.
?The chief of architect of this project, Sen. Franklin Drilon, could not join us in this glorious moment but we also convey to him our heartfelt thanks for daring to dream big dreams for Iloilo,? he said.
The governor also expressed his gratitude to the President.
Ms Arroyo recognized Drilon for helping the government increase its revenue when he was Senate President.
Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas, president of the League of Cities of the Philippines and one of Ms Arroyo?s staunchest allies, said the President?s words ?clearly showed that she is extending her hand in friendship for the sake of economic development.?
?Her message was clear: Let us forget about politics because the elections are over. Let us focus on real agenda which is to push for economic development,? said Treñas.
Asked to comment on the President?s acknowledgment of Drilon and Tupas, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez said, ?So what?!?
?Do you expect her to talk about the anomalies (committed by Tupas)?? said Gonzalez, a former Iloilo City congressman.
He said the President merely acknowledged all the people who contributed to the construction of the airport.
Contentious parties together
Ms Arroyo maintained that politics was not hampering the country?s economic performance.
?The path we have set for economic reforms has not been upset by partisan elections. And if you want proof of that statement, just look at the ones who are on this platform today. From different contending parties in the last elections, we are all together for the future of Iloilo and Panay Island,? she said.
Tupas was seated beside Ms Arroyo at the pre-departure area where the program was held. Also present were the President?s allies -- Iloilo Representatives Judy Syjuco and Defensor, Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza and Gonzalez.
?Now that the election is over, let us now all focus [our efforts] so that our economy will further grow,? the President said in Hiligaynon.
Drilon and Tupas were the President?s allies until July 2005 when they broke ties with her administration and called for her resignation.
Tupas has blamed the administration for the Jan. 17 assault on the Iloilo provincial capitol. Heavily armed policemen had tried to enforce a dismissal order by the Ombudsman against the governor and two provincial board members for graft.
Tupas defeated the administration candidate, Vice Gov. Roberto Armada, by a margin of 208,000 votes.
Tension marred the first day of operations at the new international airport after porters in the old airport insisted on working in the new facility.
Traffic was briefly stalled after airport security guards and members of the Aviation Security Group prevented around 50 workers employed by businessman Bernie Miaque from entering the main entrance of the airport.
Miaque has been operating various businesses, among them porterage and car rental services, at the old airport since 1989 but has been locked in a bitter dispute with the ATO over his businesses.
ATO Western Visayas manager Alan Java said the new airport did not need porters because passengers can use pushcarts to carry their baggage, similar to other modern airports.
The standoff was diffused three hours later, after Air Transportation Office Assistant Secretary Nilo Jatico held a dialogue with Miaque.