Airline of flying coffins? Laoag Air planes grounded
- Teddy Molina () - November 12, 2002 - 12:00am
LAOAG CITY — Residents of this city described the Fokker 27 aircraft that crashed yesterday in Manila Bay as "a flying coffin," just like two others belonging to Laoag International Airline (LIA).

No one dared board LIA planes, locals said. "Unless one’s trip is of extreme emergency, I can’t recall anyone taking LIA," a radio station manager told The STAR.

The flying coffin tag explains why no one from this city and the province of Ilocos Norte was on that ill-fated flight, according to Bombo Radyo manager Tony Casimiro.

Air Transportation Office (ATO) chief Adelberto Yap announced he had suspended all LIA flights.

It was learned that LIA has a history of plane crashes, one of which recently claimed the life of a town mayor in Batanes.

Casimiro claimed three plane crashes involving LIA recently occurred at the La-oag International Airport in Batanes and Mactan International Airport in Cebu.

At Malacañang, President Arroyo ordered the ATO "to determine the cause of the accident with a view to averting similar happenings in the future."

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the President was monitoring the rescue efforts of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard.

Taking up the cause of her constituents, Ilocos Norte Rep. Imee Marcos called on the ATO to impose sanctions on LIA.

Marcos said LIA, owned and operated by Paul Ng who is married to a Laoag City resident named Shirley, has a five-year franchise on its fleet of four planes which, she claimed, are many years old, including the Fokker-27 that crashed.

Marcos said she had earlier raised her concerns with ATO officials on the risks of using old aircraft, but she said LIA ignored warnings and even expanded its operations to Batanes, Tuguegarao and Leyte.

"We’ve been warning the ATO for so many times. Despite these warnings, the airline was allowed to expand its operations," she said.

Ilocos Norte Rep. Roque Ablan, for his part, claimed LIA operated only one Fokker plane for its Manila-Laoag route.

Ablan, a licensed pilot himself, said the plane was often seen flying "out of line" to other destinations, a practice that airport and aviation authorities should have stopped.

According to Ablan, an Ilocos Norte politician whom he declined to identify facilitated the approval of the airline’s congressional franchise.

Ablan claimed that several years ago, Ng’s application for a franchise remained mothballed because of his (Ablan’s) objections over the use of old airplanes.

He claimed the LIA franchise was approved after he vacated his seat at the House of Representatives to run as Ilocos Norte governor in 1998.

According to Ablan, LIA uses old Fokker planes manufactured in the 1960s.

He said the planes were first owned by Philippine Airlines before they were turned over to the Philippine Air Force (PAF).

The PAF later sold the aircraft to the Indonesian air force before subsequently acquired by a New Zealand company. From there, LIA owner Paul Ng bought them, Ablan said.

When asked how old their Fokker 27 aircraft were, Alvin Yater, LIA vice president for sales and marketing, only replied: "thirty plus."

Senate Minority Leader Vicente Sotto III said he felt betrayed upon learning that LIA was given the franchise when he was still the chairman of Senate committee on public services.

Sotto said a Senate probe is needed to determine if there was any misrepresentation by LIA officials on the kind of airplane they used.

"If there was misrepresentation, and if it is proven that the airplane was the cause of the accident, then the franchise might be canceled," he said.

Sotto said the Senate committee on public services, now headed by Sen. Joker Arroyo, will make the proper investigation. "We will find out why the Aeronautics Board permitted an old airplane to go commercial," he added.

Taking a cue on the allegations made by Marcos, Negros Oriental Rep. Jacinto Paras, chairman of the House committee on transportation and communications, said they will also conduct an investigation into the crash.

Paras insisted that ATO and LIA officials must answer the allegations made by Marcos and Ablan before a congressional inquiry.

Transportation and Communications Secretary Leandro Mendoza also ordered ATO officials to ground all aircraft of LIA and suspend its operations pending inquiry over the cause of the crash.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Benjamin Defensor said though the Fokker is a stable aircraft, he viewed the crash with concern since the Air Force maintains a fleet of F-27s.

"We view the accident with concern since we have our own F-27 aircraft. But we cannot speculate on what might have gone wrong," Defensor said in a statement.

On the other hand, Ng, LIA president and chief operations officer, assured the relatives and families of those who perished in the crash that they will be compensated.

"We are duty bound to extend to them whatever assistance we are mandated to give them," he said.

Records at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) showed LIA was registered as an international air passenger and freight transport operator on Feb. 24, 1995.

Aside from Ng, a Malaysian national, also listed as incorporators of the airline firm were Tan Theng Chui, an Australian, and Chinese-Filipinos Shirley Ng, Francisca Ang, and Teresita Ang.

LIA has an authorized capital of P100 million, consisting of one million shares with par value of P100 per share.

Of the total capitalization, P59.97 million has been paid by Shirley Ng, P40 million by Paul Ng, P25,000 by Francisca Ang and P100,000 each by the two remaining incorporator-directors.

LIA’s corporate license is effective for 50 years until the year 2045.

The latest financial statements filed in the SEC showed the company incurred a deficit of P11.08 million as of end-December 1999.

Revenues, on the other hand, reached P3 million while operating expenses amounted to P14.19 million.

As of December 1999, the total liabilities of the company amounted to P39.33 million. - With reports from Marichu Villanueva, Efren Danao, Jess Diaz, Zinnia Dela Peña, Paolo Romero, Jack Castano

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