Air travel within BARMM starts with Cotabato – Tawi-tawi route

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 06 June)  —  After a seven-month postponement, Philippine Airlines (PAL) will finally serve starting June 9 the Cotabato-Tawi-tawi-Cotabato route twice weekly, every Thursday and Monday, the first commercial air linkage within the three-year old Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

The inaugural flight on June 9 between mainland BARMM and one of the three island provinces, comes seven months after its supposed inaugural flight on December 20, 2021 which was postponed after super typhoon Odette struck several parts of Mindanao and the Visayas, according to the BARMM’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC). 

“Stricter travel restrictions were imposed for most of the first quarter of 2022 because of the Omicron variant of Covid. There was also the election period to consider; and then Typhoon Agaton in April,” it said in a press release titled “Persistence leads to success: The story behind the June 9 maiden flight.” 

The route will be served by PAL’s 156-seater Airbus A320 aircraft which offers passengers Premium Economy or Economy seats.

Region in Muslim Mindanao. Map also shows its proximity to the East ASEAN Growth Area, including East Kalimantan, which is being developed as the new capital of Indonesia after Jakarta. Map courtesy of Google Maps

Flight PR 2487 will leave Awang Airport in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao (also referred to as Cotabato airport) at 7:30 a.m. for the 70-minute ride to Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao, Tawi-tawi. The flight from Tawi-tawi to Cotabato City will be at 9:40 a.m., arriving in Cotabato at 10:50 a.m.

Without this air route, travelers from Tawi-tawi to Cotabato fly or sail to Zamboanga City and from there travel to Cotabato City by land for 10 hours. 

On the other hand, passengers from Davao will have to fly to Zamboanga City to go to Tawi-tawi while those in Cotabato and other Mindanao cities with no direct flight to Zamboanga will have to fly to Manila and from there fly to Tawi-tawi or take the long land travel to Zamboanga City and  from there fly or sail to Tawi-tawi. 

First within BARMM

MOTC Minister Dickson Hermoso told MindaNews that the Cotabato to Tawi-tawi flight is the first within the BARMM. He said there was an attempt under its predecessor Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao but “it failed because the airline companies did not like to take the risk given the prevailing security situation then.”

In the pre-martial law era or before 1972, elderly residents recall a direct flight from Jolo to Cotabato.

BARRM comprises the island provinces of Tawi-tawi, Basilan and Sulu and the provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur in mainland Mindanao, the cities of Lamitan in Basilan, Marawi in Lanao del Sur and Cotabato City and 63 villages in six North Cotabato towns. 

Hermoso describes Tawi-tawi ou as “our last frontier in terms of opportunities such as tourism, with its white and pink beaches, abundant marine resources” and a “trade corridor for the BIMP-EAGA.” 

BIMP-EAGA stands for Brunei-Indonesia, Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area, a 28-year old sub-regional grouping intended to spur development in remote and less developed areas in the four participating Southeast Asian countries: in Indonesia, the provinces of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and West Papua: in Malaysia, the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the federal territory of Labuan; and in the Philippines, Mindanao and Palawan. 

Taw-tawi, Hermoso said, is in proximity to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Andaman Sea, Indian Ocean. “The slogan ‘From Aparri to Jolo” is no longer appropriate. Tawi-tawi is no longer the country’s southern backdoor but our front door,” he said. 

Tawi-tawi was part of Sulu province until then President Ferdinand Marcos, using his martial law powers, issued Presidential Decree 302 on September 11, 1973, carving out Tawi-tawi from Sulu to make it a separate province.

BARMM’s economic integration

Minister Naguib Sinarimbo of the Ministry of Interior and Local Governments noted that aside from offering the “best tourism destination in the islands,” and serving as a gateway, the opening of this new air route “will also integrate economically the BARMM.”

“For a long time, the economy of the islands has been linked more to Zamboanga in Region 9 (Zamboanga region). Beyond this, however, the future for the BARMM is a return to the once flourishing maritime Southeast Asia of yore,” Sinarimbo told MindaNews. 

With Indonesia moving its capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan on Borneo island, Sinarimbo said “the once backdoor,” referring to Tawi-tawi, “may now be our front door to development.” 

Hermoso said the MOTC’s mandate is “to move people and goods” in the Bangsamoro autonomous region in a manner that is “fast, efficient, reliable and safe to spur economic development in BARMM.” 

The MOTC, led by Hermoso and Director-General Roslaine Macao-Maniri first met with PAL executives Harry Inoferio, Senior Assistant Vice President for Philippine sales, and Mary Jane Go, Assistant Vice-President for Airport Services and  retired Lt. Gen. Caesar Ronnie F. Ordoyo, Vice-President for Security on November 4, 2021 in Manila. 

“Through all of those intervening events” – super typhoon Odette, Omicron variant surge, typhoon Agaton, election period – “talks continued between MOTC and PAL and the latter remained committed to opening its first route entirely within BARMM, connecting the mainland and one of the island-provinces.”

The latest of the series of talks was held on May 18. 

The MOTC said it also coordinated closely with the Department of Transportation (DOTr) which is implementing a phase-by-phase improvement of the Sanga-Sanga Airport, including a new passenger terminal building by 2025. 

The MOTC also requested that DOTr’s passenger terminal building project in Awang Airport will be completed as soon as possible as it is already overdue.

In his visit to Bongao, Tawi-tawi on May 23, Hermoso appealed to local government officials and the business sector to patronize this new means of moving people and goods from the island to mainland BARMM, mainland Mindanao. (Carolyn O. Arguillas /MindaNews )