Ironic twist of events
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - January 7, 2019 - 12:00am

Last Friday, three United States (US) Marines soldiers were stopped and held by authorities at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal-3 for non-declaration of the ammunition they brought with them for their flight to Japan. A total of 17 magazines and 60 live ammunition were discovered in one of their bags that went through routine X-ray screening of the Office of Transportation Security (OTS).

They were later allowed to board their flight along with the seized banned items after an American liaison officer subsequently presented official documents to NAIA authorities.

This happened at the heels of the latest travel advisory issued by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that created quite a furor here. It went viral online here last December 26. The DHS travel advisory stated: “Passengers are advised that the Secretary of Homeland Security has determined that Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) in Manila, Republic of the Philippines, does not maintain and carry out effective aviation security measures.”

According to the DHS, their advisory was based on assessments by a team of security experts from the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The DHS required their security advisory should be “prominently displayed” at all US airports that provide regularly scheduled flights to Manila.

Blindsided perhaps by the DHS advisory, Philippine government officials led by our own airport agencies under the supervision of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) went into denial mode. The four terminals of NAIA are all under the supervision of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA), headed by general manager Eddie Monreal who reports directly to DOTr Secretary Arturo Tugade as the over-all head of these agencies running the NAIA.

The DHS advisory apparently pushed the panic button of the OTS, the Aviation Security Group, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), and the rest of DOTr-attached agencies involved in the day-to-day operations of NAIA. Now, it takes almost an hour for passengers to get inside NAIA terminals due to doubling of pre-departure security checks.

Other government agencies are also involved in the security and protection of passengers, cargos, aircrafts, and other facilities in all the four NAIA terminals. These include the Bureau of Immigration (BI); the Bureau of Customs; the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA); the Department of Tourism (DOT); the Department of Health; the Department of Labor and Employment; and even the Department of Agriculture (DA). 

Up to this writing, we have not heard anything from Tugade himself. A little birdie – perched at one of the trees at Malacanang Palace – chirped President Duterte, and  his close advisers led by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Tugade were given the heads up a few months back long before the DHS issued its travel advisory against NAIA. During that meeting, it was purportedly agreed to tone down the Philippine government response to the DHS travel advisory on NAIA when it indeed comes out.

However, apparently the verbal “memo” did not reach the other Cabinet officials who have a say on the issue.

Following the DHS advisory, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. spoke up, through his personal Twitter account: “Never question US Homeland Security. Never. Ever. It stands between us and chaos.” Known for his acerbic wittiness, I could just imagine it was one of Locsin’s facetious quips.

But for Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, it was a serious matter that must be addressed forthrightly. As the country’s chief promoter of travel and tourism industries in the Philippines, the DOT Secretary would naturally take up the cudgels for those directly affected by such a negative advisory from one of the country’s major tourist market.

The DOT, she pointed out, is in close coordination with the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the CAAP, which are among government agencies capable and more than qualified to assess and respond to threats to ensure the safety and security of tourists and travelers passing through our country’s airports. “With this, we assure the international community, that the Philippines remains a safe haven for our visitors and residents alike,” Puyat averred. 

This merited another comment from the DFA Secretary reacting to the online news about the DOT message of reassurances. @teddyboylocsin Twitter post December 27, he commented: “It has nothing to do with safety in the Philippine countryside and cities. IT IS ABOUT AVIATION SECURITY. You know about terrorists not getting into planes and sowing terrorism in the air and other countries.” 

Speaking of terrorism, the December 31 improvised explosive device (IED) that exploded and killed two persons and injured 30 others in Cotabato City resulted to more negative travel advisories. The United Kingdom and Australia issued one after the other advice/warning to their respective nationals on the dangers of traveling to Southern Philippines following the latest Cotabato IED incident.

Speaking for the Philippine government, the DFA Secretary commented on his Twitter account: “That’s fair warning.” Jose “Jojo” Clemente, president of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines, concurred saying they are more worried about the DHS advisory than the UK and Australia travel warning.

While NAIA officials are still smarting on the DHS travel advisory, Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol relieved last Friday his entire Quarantine Group assigned at the NAIA for not implementing his ban on the entry of African swine fever.

On his Twitter post that day, the DFA Secretary lauded: “Piñol on the ball and not taking ‘procurement process’ for not getting necessary things done: foot baths to stop the spread of porcine fever – and aviation security equipment and training for flights. The bidding process has fast track exceptions in that case.”

These are the ironic twists of events that usher in the year of the pig.

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