Safe air travel
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 11, 2014 - 12:00am

Finally after six years, the Philippines has gotten back its Category 1 status from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States. This means the country’s flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) can mount additional flights from Manila to the US and allowing other carriers to open new direct flights to America.

No less than newly installed US ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg issued the breaking news early morning yesterday. In his Twitter account @AMBGoldberg, the US ambassador posted: “Good news! Philippines compliance with international #aviation safety oversight standards earns Category 1 Safety Rating.”

Being one of the 7,786 Twitter followers of the US ambassador, we could say we’re among the first to know about this “good news.” Of course, this was obviously first relayed officially by Goldberg to no less than President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III.

But Goldberg personally handed over the official letter of notice from FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Margaret Gilligan to retired Lt. Gen.William Hotchkiss  III as head of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines. This is because the CAAP is the chief government agency mandated, among other things, to ensure safety and security of flights coming in and out of our country’s airports.

The Category 1 upgrade by the FAA was the last hurdle the Philippines was able to complete this year. It came after the delisting last February of the remaining aviation safety concerns of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of the United Nations. In July last year, the European Union lifted the ban on PAL flights to EU states also over airport safety issues.

Six years ago, the ICAO, the FAA, and the EU one after the other shut the door on the Philippines. For almost the same period of time of the FAA downgrade to Category 2 of the Philippines, the country had been in the ICAO List of Significant Safety Concern States and subsequent EU ban.   

It was the darkest period in Philippine aviation industry when the country suffered the ignominy of our international airports being classified as unsafe.

But if we look back to the period before 2008 and even after the country was already downgraded by the FAA to Category 2 status, there was no major aviation accident or airplane crash that could be blamed or traced to these supposed safety concerns in our international airports.

Come to think of it, the Philippines has been unfairly treated through these years by the country’s supposed failure to meet international aviation safety standards. Our airports are like military/police garrisons where you pass through several security checks from body frisks to X-ray machines.

If there are things that we could fault, or our international airports are guilty of, these could be more related to comfort and convenience of travelers, not safety standards.

The passenger terminals of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) 1, 2 and 3 have been included in the notorious list of airport facilities lacking basic amenities for comfort and convenience. From poorly maintained comfort rooms to lack of user-friendly baggage trolleys, NAIA has always been getting the thumbs down from international travelers based on several global opinion survey ratings.

As the country’s premier airport, NAIA should be the model of efficiency for the rest of international gateways we have here, from Clark International Airport, Subic International Airport, Mactan-Cebu International Airport (MCIA), and the rest of international airports in Davao, Iloilo, Albay     

The Philippines regaining the FAA Category 1 status is therefore a challenge to our government officials in charge of these things to make sure the country would never slip back to this notorious list of world’s worst airports. It rests squarely upon the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC).

As the supervisory body of these agencies from CAAP to NAIA, DOTC Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya must live up to this task. Abaya is now in the process of implementing the upgrade programs for many of these airports through P-Noy’s Public-Private Partnership (PPP).

The MCIA upgrade project has been in the pipeline along with other PPP projects that got stalled for various reasons. It suffered another setback after its bid award to Megawide-GMR in December last year got snagged over bidding war. The MCIA project did not take off after one of the losing bidders raised issues and questions that reached all the way to the Senate.

Only a week ago, the DOTC finally issued to the winning bidder, Megawide-GMR, its notice to proceed with implementation of the P17.8-billion upgrade project of the MCIA. Megawide is one of the top construction firms in the Philippines while Bangalore-based GMR Infrastructure Ltd. is the world’s third largest private airport developer in terms of passenger traffic.

Under this 25-year concession contract, the Megawide-GMR will construct and operate passenger terminals for international and domestic flights at MCIA; construct and operate existing and new aprons; ground handling, in-flight catering, providing security (excluding anti-sabotage, anti-hijacking and law and order), among others.

The DOTC is now attending to the other airport upgrade projects under PPP to complete this hopefully before P-Noy ends his term in June 2016.

 Next to the DOTC chief, most elated by this FAA “good news” is of course his fellow Cabinet member, Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Ramon Jimenez whose agency dreams of meeting the target of ten million tourist arrivals annually by the end of P-Noy’s term in 2016.

While still under Category 2, the DOT failed to meet its tourist arrivals target last year of five million. But still, total tourist arrivals in the country reached 4.3 million. This not something to sneeze at considering PAL and the rest of our carriers were fighting on unequal footing with other foreign airlines.

Certainly, this FAA Category 1 now makes PAL and the rest of our carriers like Cebu Pacific flaunt their track record of safe air travel – not to mention world-class service – comparable, if not better than others.






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