airports in the Philippines

Davao Oriental sees Imelda Marcos’ airport opening after about 5 decades

Ferdinand Zuasola

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Davao Oriental sees Imelda Marcos’ airport opening after about 5 decades

FACELIFT. The facade of the newly refurbished terminal of the mothballed Mati City Airport.

Ferdinand Zuasola/Rappler

A 34-hectare airport named after the former first lady has been there for about five decades, its runway long covered by vegetation on the property that belongs to the politically-influential Rabat clan

DAVAO ORIENTAL, Philippines – Within a vast plantation in Mati City owned by close friends of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos and his widow Imelda stands an airport terminal that was given a facelift by the government in 2021.

The 34-hectare airport, built in the 1970s and originally named after the former first lady, is a white elephant – it’s been there for about five decades, its runway long covered by vegetation. There are pomelos, oranges, grapes, and coconuts on the property that belongs to the politically-influential Rabat clan.

After all these years, members of the clan agreed to negotiate for the sale of the property so the airport could serve the purpose for which it was built, said Davao Oriental 2nd District Representative Joel Mayo Almario on Sunday, June 19.

The Department of Transportation (DOTr) has set aside some P200 million to buy the property from the Rabats and Rocamoras, Almario said.

He said the government plans to expand the airport from 34 to 61 hectares.

Airport on private property

But the circumstances surrounding the government’s decision to construct what has become a mothballed airport on private property are shrouded in mystery to this day.

Almario said the Mati Airport had long been believed to have been built on a donated property because that was what Davao Oriental’s past officials said before.

“So, everybody took that story as the truth,” said Almario.

The airport, however, was left unused for commercial flights because there was no deed of donation ever executed to transfer the land ownership to the government. Its owners demanded payment.

‘Because Imelda wanted it’

Another story, according to Almario, was that former first lady Imelda Marcos had the airport constructed on the property so it would be convenient for her to visit her friend, the late 1956 Miss Philippines Merced “Edith” Nakpil Rabat.

Edith was the wife of the late former Philippine national basketball team player Francisco “Paking” Rabat who became Davao Oriental’s governor from 1978 to 1986.

According to Almario, one story was that Imelda wanted to visit Edith and her family in Mati, which was still a town at that time, but did not want to travel back and forth to Davao City where the nearest airport was located.

“So, she (Imelda) ordered the construction of the airport right on the property of the Rabats,” Almario said.

The mothballed Mati Airport was originally named Imelda Romualdez Marcos Airport.

Near the Rabat clan property is a private airport which was built, too, in the ’70s by a Marcos crony, Hans Menzi, in his estate where a Spanish-era-inspired white mansion stands. 

Menzi was a former military aide of the late strongman who turned into an industrialist and publisher of the broadsheet Manila Daily Bulletin, which was renamed Bulletin Today during Martial Law, and Manila Bulletin after the 1986 EDSA revolt.

The late Marcos crony had invested so much in Mati and bought vast tracts of agricultural land in the Davao Oriental capital and Bukidnon during the years of the dictatorship.

In the ’70s, it would take at least 10 hours to travel from Mati to Davao City where commercial flights were available. Five decades later, the nearest airport from Mati is still in Davao City, but significant road improvements have reduced travel time to about three hours.

Funds ready

As Mati celebrated its 15th anniversary as a chartered city on Sunday, Almario said the capital city of Davao Oriental and the province for that matter would soon have its own airport with commercial flights, finally.

Almario said negotiations for the sale of the Rabat and Rocamora property started in 2017, a year after President Rodrigo Duterte rose to power. 

Once everything is in order, the provincial government would pay the landowners using funds downloaded by the DOTr, he said.

Some P180 million has already been downloaded to the capitol’s account with the Land Bank of the Philippines in February, said Almario.

The process had been slowed down because one of the landowners had found the government’s price way below what they had demanded, according to Almario.

Done deal

Now, all the families have already given their consent, said Mati City vice mayor-elect Lorenzo Rabat.

“The opening of Mati Airport will bring in more tourists, not only from the region,” he said.

He said the next city council and Mati Mayor Michelle Rabat were committed to efforts to open the airport and bring commercial flights to the city.

The incumbent Vice Mayor Glenda Rabat-Gayta called the sale a done deal. She said all the documents were now being finalized.

“It is just a matter of time. You know how documentation is. We are all excited, and hopefully, ma-open na siya (the airport would be opened), and that would be another good thing for Mati,” Gayta said.

She said that if plans don’t miscarry, all documents would have been signed by the end of June in time for the assumption of president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the same couple that had the mothballed airport built. –

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