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Business

The chaos of flying in and out of Manila

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Overseas Filipino workers are stranded in the Middle East, with some stuck in deportation jails because they cannot go home just yet, no thanks to NAIA’s passenger arrival limits; foreigners with special retiree’s visas to the Philippines are likewise stranded in different parts of the globe because Manila won’t let them in, and some departing OFWs ready to leave for abroad just got barred from boarding their flights.

Welcome to Manila, welcome to mayhem.

This is how chaos looks like and this is what discombobulating travel and immigration policies can do to thousands of Filipinos and foreigners alike.

The horror stories are varied as they are endless. We hear of helpless OFWs stranded in places like Qatar or Jeddah because their flights home have been cancelled due to the daily arrival limits at NAIA. Some with expired visas are in deportation jails.

The situation is no better here in Manila.

Just last week, chaos greeted departing Filipino workers bound for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Immigration authorities did not allow them to board their flights because of a sudden government deployment ban which, despite its huge impact, was known only to the government, at least at that moment.

The carriers did not know it and neither did the passengers because there was no official government directive or a timely public announcement to inform departing OFWs.

What an irresponsible move on the part of the government and certainly a costly incompetence.

Authorities have lifted the deployment ban and Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III has apologized for the confusion and “momentary anguish” they caused, but the damage is done.

This administration really needs to get its house in order.

Confusion

There is so much confusion in the policies surrounding inbound and outbound travel to and from Manila these days, and directives change in the wink of an eye with no ample time for adjustments.

In the end, around 400 OFWs bound for Riyadh and Dammam were not allowed to board their Philippine Airlines flights, leaving them tired and angry.

More than the anguish, this was certainly costly for OFWs, including the logistics cost of going to the airport, especially if they live outside Metro Manila.

For PAL, it had to proceed with the flights nearly empty to carry passengers on the return leg to Manila.

Flying empty planes is the last thing that PAL needs at this difficult time when the airline industry is already facing challenges because of COVID-19.

The troubled carrier continues to mount flights for Filipinos and foreigners, and it isn’t even seeking a dole-out or a cash bailout from the government beyond what the Bayanihan laws provide.

Now, the beleaguered airline is about to go through restructuring and get ready for the eventual return of normal tourist and business travel.

But all these confusing directives, restrictions and last minute flight cancellations are not helping our local carriers.

NAIA arrival limit

The daily arrival limit of passengers at NAIA, for instance, is a problem as it leaves Filipinos and foreigners stranded abroad because their flights are suddenly cancelled.

This was meant as a measure against COVID-19, but the strict quarantine protocols upon arrival should already take care of preventing the entry of virus variants from abroad.

The government can instead impose targeted travel bans as it should have done early on last year for travelers from China.

If the daily limit can’t be totally removed, then the government should just increase it to a reasonable level because 2,000 is just not realistic.

A bigger share should likewise be given to bigger airlines. PAL, for instance, is operating more than two dozen international routes into the Philippines, something no other airline does.

Special Resident Retiree’s Visa

Foreigners who are holders of the Philippines’ Special Resident Retiree’s Visa (SRRVisa) meanwhile, could not fly back to the country just yet because of restrictions.

Some 1,500 SRRVisa holders, I heard, are stuck in different countries abroad because the IATF requires them to get an entry exemption document if they want to return to Manila.

The process of getting this is tedious, I’m told.

SRRVisa holders have been pleading with the IATF to exclude them from such a requirement, saying that their visa, after all, is a special permanent resident visa with re-entry permit and multiple entry privileges.

The travel restrictions have separated retiree-members of the Philippine Retirement Authority from their loved ones and their businesses in the Philippines, industry sources told me.

Vaccine roll-out

Moving forward, the Philippines really needs to accelerate its vaccine roll-out and build its capacity.

“It is also important to build domestic capacity that would ensure some degree of vaccine self-reliance critical to prepare countries to deal with future pandemics,” said Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez in a recent virtual forum with US and Philippine government officials.

But for now, authorities must issue travel directives that are precise, science-based and consistent.

Otherwise, Manila-bound passengers will continue to be stranded in airports all over the world and hapless Filipinos run the risk of being deported. These are real people with real lives, real families, and real jobs to keep.

 

 

Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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