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Aviation black hole no more

Not too long ago, we were the pariah in the aviation world. Having the world’s worst airport and its non functioning wash rooms were the least of our problems. There were serious safety issues lodged against us which led regulators in Europe and the United States to declare us non compliant with basic aviation safety requirements.

There were consequences for being asked to stand in the corner, so to speak because our country’s aviation regulatory set-up was deemed highly deficient or unsafe. It was seen to be so unsafe that the Europeans who came here as tourists and rode Philippine-registered aircraft did so at their own risk. Their insurance will not cover those who ride on PAL, Cebu Pacific, Zest, SEAir, etc.

 The US FAA placed the Philippines under Category 2 in 2008 because the CAAP did not have a proper regulatory mechanism, did not have proper facilities and enough trained and qualified personnel to provide proper regulatory oversight. Corruption was rampant in CAAP and its predecessor agency, the ATO or Air Transportation Office. And corruption in this vital agency kills... Jesse Robredo’s plane crash comes to mind.

 Indeed, I remember a former CAAP chief telling me they don’t have reliable records of licenses they have issued. Their record keeping, if one can call it that, are pieces of paper in shoe boxes. Even the licenses, the former CAAP chief told me, are printed in pieces of plain “cartolina.”

The Category 2 rating had bottom line consequences for local airlines, more particularly Philippine Airlines. The flag carrier couldn’t use their more fuel efficient Boeing 777 and could not add more destination cities in America. Ironically, our local airlines follow world class operations, safety and maintenance standards but suffered the punishment leveled on the country’s aviation regulators.

Eventually, the Aquino administration managed to do enough to convince the Europeans and the Americans to lift the Category 2 rating they imposed on us during the Arroyo watch. But many of the regulatory problems remained.

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 Apparently, we are known in aviation circles as a black hole in the region. All our neighbors have sophisticated satellite based communication and navigation systems while we relief on an outdated and often non operational land-based radar system. 

We lack a vital facility that guides planes in our air space as they fly through and as they take off and land. The strategic vision of the international civil aviation community is to have an integrated global air traffic management system through the worldwide implementation of Communications, Navigation, Surveillance and Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM). They want seamless skies… using satellites.

Our horse and buggy system, needless to say, has long required upgrading. In fact, we obtained a JICA loan in March 2002 for such a modern system. It took us a long time to financially close, February 2010, failed to implement and negotiated an extension in May 2013.

 Nothing much happened at the tail end of the Arroyo regime except rumors of corruption surrounding the deal. Having the system was so important that when Ping de Jesus took over as DOTC Secretary under P-Noy, reviewing the project was one of his priorities. Sec. Ping sent me a letter reacting to one of my columns on the subject:

 “As to your concern on the reliability of our aviation equipment and systems, the DOTC will soon commission a modern communication and air traffic system, the CNS-ATM, which will place the Philippine air navigation system at par with modern airports around the world.  Our target date of completion is at the end of 2013. Meanwhile, we are putting in place a transition system to maintain navigational safety at the NAIA.”

After reviewing the contracts, Sec. Ping cleared the implementation of the CNS/ATM system before he resigned. But when Mar took over, he stopped implementation to study it again. And when I talked with then CAAP director general Ramon Gutierrez, it was nine months after and he said nothing was moving.

Gutierrez told me that if and when the decision to go is given, the specifications must be redesigned to account for the growth of budget carriers and the adoption of open skies. The system should be able to handle the increased traffic…  Gutierrez was fired by P-Noy shortly after our conversation for failing to meet a promise to get a Category 1 upgrade by a certain date.

Mar, and later Jun Abaya, sat on the project for two years. They claimed they were reviewing the contracts for the CNS/ATM system that Sec Ping already cleared for implementation. In the meantime the old system they were using was always “dying” and if working, some of its monitors were blinking.

 I was told they also could no longer get spare parts for the old system so the breakdowns came more often. Mar and Jun Abaya were effectively compromising safety with this old unreliable system. Eventually, the go signal was given to proceed with the project that shouldn’t have been held up in the first place.

The GPS-based CNS/ATM system will cover the entire Philippines and has 48 monitoring points. It is essentially a traffic and communication system that provides in real time more accurate information of arrival, departures, aircraft position at any one time anywhere in the Philippine flight information region.

It will facilitate air space management, air traffic flow management and air traffic service. This system will enhance air traffic safety, provide more dynamic flight planning, minimize delays and reduce air traffic controller workload.

The infuriating thing is that we could have had this system up and running sooner if Mar and Jun Abaya didn’t dilly dally. We ended up paying a penalty for the delay because the contractor had already been ordered to mobilize and then ordered again to stop.

I visited the recently completed operations center last Tuesday and it is something to behold. The modern facility looks like it really means business. They are currently training the technicians and operators who will be looking at all those computer screens and making sure our flights are safe.

But the more important parts of the program are the modern radars out there in sites all over the country constantly scanning our skies and providing information to an operations center at NAIA. The network of radars can track planes flying over our skies, making it easy to bill the airlines later.

The project finally almost done at over 90 percent completion. They hope to complete everything and formally commission it by the first quarter of next year.

 One more thing they are doing that should have been done a long time ago is preparing an aeronautical chart of NAIA. Not surprisingly, NAIA is one major airport without one. Mactan has one, but probably needs updating.

Such a chart gives a graphic idea of everything a pilot should know about the territory from hills, mountains and in our case, tall buildings and communication towers. Another consultant, the British consultancy NATS, is working on this. That it’s being done at all is a thumbs-up for the new leadership in the Transportation department.

I could feel the pride of the Filipino engineers and technicians who had been working on the CNS/ATM system from the start. It is as if their frustration during the Mar and Abaya years have been overshadowed by that joyful feeling one gets seeing a dream project finally becoming reality.

One of them beamed as he told me that finally, the Philippines will no longer be a black hole for regional aviation. We are now part of the seamless skies made possible by this state of the art satellite-based communication and navigation system.

 Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

                             

 

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