ALL OK WITH CRK
Like a persistent phoenix , the Clark International Airport has risen from the ashes and suddenly become one of my new favorite airports. Here’s why.
By Ted Lerner
March 13, 2017
When the Philippine Senate and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo forced the Americans to hightail it out of Clark and Angeles City in 1991 — 78 years after ostensibly stopping in to just rest their horses and suckle a few cold drinks — the locals were left in utter shock. Overnight, 50,000 well-paying jobs and over $1 million dollars a day pumped into the local economy had vanished. Lahar and ash from the volcano inundated the entire region, while the locals finished the job, gleefully looting Clark of all its American household and hardware goodies. In the blink of a bloodshot eye, the area went from one of the country’s few economic bright spots to seemingly having no reason to exist.
But like a bedraggled solider at war longing for the comforts of home, this area not only shouldered on, but dreamed high. Ever since I first visited Angeles in the mid 1990’s, I’ve noticed there has always been no shortage of seemingly irrational exuberance about the future, even when progress was clearly a fanciful mirage appearing out of the ever present dust. And after living here for 17 years now, I truly believe that unlike many places in the Philippines, there is a certain energy in Angeles and Clark, a freewheeling, anything-goes vibrancy that makes every day a new day; a place where dreams are made and lost, where you can reinvent yourself every few hours.
Perhaps one reason I say this is because, as a foreigner, I’m privy to plenty of irrational exuberance of many fast talking foreigners who arrive here with golden dreams, roll the dice with their last dollars or euros, and walk away empty handed, their dreams of greatness having vanished in a storm of alcohol, intrigue and mismanagement. Yeah, in these expat circles, talk is definitely cheap, and bullshit walks in the door each and every happy hour. Still more eager punters arrive each and every day.
Amongst the locals, however, this exuberance for the future of this area has been a mainstay of my almost two decades here. And I know there’s always been two very solid overriding reasons why locals have always seen a very bright future for this region; those two massive slabs of concrete baking in the scorching Pampanga sun out on Clark Field.
I’m referring, of course, to the two world-class runways sitting parallel to each other, built by the Americans when they ran the base. It is said the deep, reinforced concrete is some of the finest ever installed anywhere in the world. People in these parts always liked to boast that these runways were one of only three in the world where you could land the Space Shuttle.
Even in the mid-1990s, despite the ongoing disaster of Pinatubo and the rampaging lahar inundating towns throughout the region, those runways were all anyone could talk about. Despite no noticeable progress on the base, many locals in the 1990’s were telling me the airport would soon be as busy as Hong Kong.
Of course that dream never quite materialized but in theory it made some sense. The Americans had left behind a not so small slice of perfect American infrastructure. The rest of Asia was only a few short hours away. Unlike Manila, there was plenty of space here. And unlike other towns and municipalities in this region, Angeles and Clark didn’t flood during rainy season.
Now, however, over two decades on and after several fitful starts, those seemingly grandiose dreams may just be becoming a reality. I’m not saying Clark is about to become the next Hong Kong. But surely the folks that run Clark airport are doing something right because the options now on offer are seriously amazing and seem to be expanding weekly.
Before I regal you with my experiences as a regular user of Clark Airport, I feel it’s important to compliment the folks who run the airport. Despite a lot of resistance over the years from the powers that be in Manila, they have persisted with the dream of turning Clark Airport into a major international travel gateway and the results are finally starting to show. The refurbished terminal won’t make Clark another Hong Kong, but it’s shiny and practical for now. And it works. There are rarely crowds at the airport. There’s plenty of parking. The people who work at the airport are friendly and relaxed. There’s hardly any hassle when moving through the airport. If you travel often enough, the immigration and customs people greet you personally.
As you can tell, I’m a big fan of Clark Airport and my recent experiences only continue to bolster my admiration for what is quickly becoming one of my favorite travel hubs. I had long dreamed of not having to brave the traffic hell of Manila for international travel but for years, even with several budget airlines operating out of Clark in the mid-2000’s , the options were limited, especially for onward travel to all corners of the globe. But then, in 2015, Qatar Airways began offering daily flights out of Clark to Doha. This was a major milestone not just because nearly 200,000 Filipinos live and work in Doha. It was a big deal because Qatar Air literally flies all over the world from its base in Doha.
That first trip to Europe out of Clark was truly a mind blower. I was at my gate at Clark 25 minutes after leaving home. After a nice flight to Doha, and a two hour layover at Qatar’s beautiful, brand new Hamed Airport, I was on my way to London, where my bags were waiting for me when I landed at Heathrow. The return trip was just as easy with a 90 minute layover in Doha included. When I landed at Clark I was out of the airport and headed home within 20 minutes.
Two years later and the options have seriously expanded at Clark and so has my use of the airport. These days I find I rarely have to go to Manila for travel overseas. I’ve flown Emirates and Qatar to Europe several times and the trip has been hassle free. Last month I pulled a first. Cathay Dragon, the budget carrier of Cathay Pacific, flies 5 times weekly from Clark to Hong Kong. On this trip I flew Cathay Dragon from Clark to Hong Kong and then transferred to Cathay Pacific for a non-stop flight to JFK in New York City. That’s just 21 hours door to door to the east coast of the USA. I pulled off the return in 20 hours and was home in bed 35 minutes after landing!
Just recently Philippine Airlines, which had long resisted using Clark, heeded the call of the President and has started offering flights from Clark to Boracay, Cebu, Busuanga, Davao and even Korea. My friends at the airport tell me that Air Asia may be coming back in soon. One of the big dreams, I’m told, is to get an American carrier to offer a non-stop flight from Clark to the US.
There’s talk of a new and bigger terminal to be completed by 2021 which will be able to handle up to 8 million passengers a year. We’re still hearing about the proposed fast train to and from Manila, which would certainly be a game changer if it ever materializes. Certainly the upgraded highway infrastructure surrounding Clark will bring in travelers from the north and even Quezon City looking for more and easier options.
Whatever happens going forward, Clark International Airport has already won me over. So much so that now when I need to travel, I find myself going online and typing in CRK instead of MNL and finding plenty of options at affordable rates. In fact my next two trips overseas are already booked out of Clark.
I’m more than Ok using CRK as my go to airport in the Philippines. I call it the friendly, easy and civilized airport. The even greet me by name whenever I travel there now. That in itself is certainly worth something.
And it’s nice to see those two amazing slabs of high grade, reinforced concrete that my parents tax money helped pay for finally being put to proper use.