Safe skies

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - July 12, 2013 - 12:00am

Now that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has withdrawn its two “significant safety concerns” or SSCs issued on the Philippines and the European Union (EU) has lifted its ban on flag carrier Philippine Airlines, the next step for the country is to get out of the Category 2 status imposed by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Our government seems to think this is likely since the EU move was based on an aviation safety audit for compliance with standards set by the ICAO, which are also used by the FAA as basis for its safety categories.

 The FAA conducts an International Aviation Safety Assessment Program on the civil aviation authority of each country with carriers operating in the United States. Carriers in countries placed under Category 2 cannot initiate new service to the US, even under a code-share arrangement with airlines from other countries. Philippine carriers also undergo closer inspection at US airports.

The country’s Category 2 status may be affected by the conflict of interest in the twin roles of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) as both regulator of the airline industry and investigator of air accidents.

Republic Act 9497, which created the CAAP, gave its director general sweeping powers. I didn’t see any provision for the delegation of these powers to a duly authorized representative.

 RA 9497 tasks the CAAP director general to issue licenses and certifications for the qualifications of pilots and flying instructors as well as the airworthiness of aircraft. The CAAP chief is also tasked to inspect, classify and rate air navigation facilities and airports for suitability for their intended use. If the CAAP chief can’t delegate at least some of these duties, there must be a mountain of paperwork on his desk.

In the US, the FAA is the regulator while the National Transportation Safety Board probes air accidents. The NTSB is the body investigating the recent crash of the Asiana Airlines flight at the San Francisco International Airport.

RA 9497 allowed the creation of an Aircraft Accident Investigation and Inquiry Board under the CAAP pending the establishment of “an independent and separate” agency to probe accidents on land, air and water. This provision for the interim nature of the probe body under the CAAP, approved way back in March 2008, could go the way of court-issued temporary restraining orders that are anything but temporary.

It’s also uncertain if the EU move will encourage the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau to end its own freeze on additional flights to Japan by Philippine carriers. The Japanese reportedly have their own concerns about Philippine aviation safety apart from those noted by ICAO.

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The CAAP replaced the Air Transportation Office, which was blamed for the country’s being placed under Category 2 in January 2008. ICAO issued the SSC in 2009 and the EU banned Philippine carriers in 2010. A second SSC was issued late last year, but the country finally passed ICAO scrutiny after another safety audit last February. The Category 2 status may be a tougher hurdle.

At least European travel agents can resume booking tour packages to the Philippines following the lifting of the SSCs. European insurers can also cover travel to the Philippines again.

While many travelers now book their trip arrangements online, most high-value and corporate travelers still pay travel agents to do the work. Last year I was told that the refusal of European insurers to cover trips to the Philippines led to an average annual loss of about 4,000 European visitors in one hotel alone in Banawe.

In addition to the direct flights to Europe that Philippine Airlines is eager to launch, the lifting of the common carrier’s tax and the end of the practice of charging to foreign carriers the overtime pay of customs and immigration personnel at the NAIA may encourage some European carriers to revive their direct flights to Manila. This is good news for Philippine tourism and Pinoy travelers.

But there’s still a lot of work needed to modernize our aviation industry. The government recently “re-initiated” negotiations for an air navigation system with a group led by Japan, with France’s aerospace giant Thales providing the technology and New Zealand the consultancy services.

Our airports currently lack navigation systems and other equipment for precision landing. The Davao International Airport, for example, only has a non-precision lateral guidance system functioning and no runway center lights. An instrument landing system or ILS allows both vertical and lateral guidance for aircraft and precision approach even in bad weather.

Most countries have ILS in all their regular airports. In our country, there are ILS at the NAIA, Clark, Iloilo, Bacolod (one runway) and Davao (two runways). But the ILS in Bacolod and Davao are reportedly not functioning.

The ILS was reportedly off on the runway at San Francisco International Airport when the Asiana Airlines flight crashed last week. Airport officials said the weather was fine so there was no need for the ILS.

In our country, the lack of an ILS has derailed the full operation of the new Laguindingan Airport in Misamis Oriental, which is meant to replace Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro.

There is a “sunset limitation” on flights to Laguindingan because of the lack of the ILS including night landing facilities, which led to delays, cancelled flights and incensed passengers after the airport was formally opened on June 15.

At least we haven’t heard of goats and cows strolling along our airport runways for some time. The withdrawal of the SSCs and lifting of the ban on PAL are notable achievements for Philippine aviation. The momentum must not be lost.



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