When competitors cooperate

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

I could be talking about business or I could be talking about politics or both. One thing is for sure, given our state of affairs in both areas, “Cooperation” will be vital to survival of companies, politicians and the state itself. In fact, two arch rivals in business have put aside their “saber lights” and joined forces to ensure the survival of their fleets: namely Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific. It was not too long ago that both airlines were so competitive and at each other’s throats, hoping to see the other bleed and pass out. But thanks mostly to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 and stringent but inconsistent quarantine policies both local and national, the two airlines have opted to cooperate in order to protect and ensure the survival of the aviation industry and ensure the continued existence of air services in the future. Evidently, the pickings in aviation have been so slim that the airlines are so starved they don’t have enough energy to fight over bones.

Instead PAL, Cebu Pacific as well as Air Asia have joined forces with the private sector through Presidential Adviser Joey Concepcion to push harder for more concessions and “deregulation” of health restrictions aimed at increasing passenger loads both local and international, specifically increasing the cap or limit of arriving passengers from abroad, improvement and reduction of days in quarantine, introduction of pre-boarding RT-PCR requirement, recognition and incentivizing fully vaccinated passengers, uniform requirements for local governments for arriving passengers in their localities.

Evidently much of the focus of the Inter Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Diseases has been to control the entry and spread of COVID-19 into the country. But after the entry and community transmission of the Delta variant, it is clear that we are way past being able to stop the virus as originally envisioned. The IATF and DOH have applied so many strategies that were mostly stop gap measures, effective for short periods or spikes but in the long run of very little effect and too much collateral damage to the economy and our quality of life, not to mention strangulation of the aviation industry.

In addition we have learned so much about the virus since February of 2020. The first real problem is that unless someone or some group is banging at the door, whatever was implemented in the past 18 months generally has remained in effect. Government is implementing rules but who is actually analyzing outcomes and researching what other countries have been doing to address or adjust to situations? In the meantime those restrictions have paralyzed and disabled businesses nationwide.

Here’s a sampler: Many airline companies/countries require air travelers to have an RT-PCR test 48 to 72 hours before boarding a plane. I know some EU & Middle East carriers provide free RT-PCR tests. Some airlines have even gone as far as requiring additional pre-boarding Antigen tests. It seems the Philippines does not have this requirement. Many of today’s quarantine restrictions were crafted pre-vaccination/documentation period as well as the availability of RT-PCR test results in 24 hours. If you were to combine the 48-72-hour pre-boarding test alongside vaccination cards and RT-PCR test three days upon arrival, it has been determined that there is a much lower risk or number of positive cases arriving at an airport and reduced expenses for travelers.

Of interest is the observation that countries known to have limited quarantine facilities for arriving air travelers are also those with longer than usual required number of days for quarantine. Instead of the “traditional 14-day quarantine” the shift should be towards pre- boarding tests, then 2nd test on 3rd or 5th day from arrival and results available within 24 hours. This automatically frees up quarantine rooms faster and about P25,000 savings per traveler.

If there is one thing that our friends in Congress should look into is the perceived discrimination in the IATF policy that allows the return of OFWs via “repatriation flights” mostly paid for by the government, while excluding or preventing the return of regular Filipino citizens, businessmen or students from all over the world. Most of the OFWs are suppose to be provided with return tickets by employers or agencies so why foot the bill? Repatriation for stranded or displaced OFWs is one thing but it should not be wholesale.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Filipinos abroad are willing and able to pay for their flights but the cap on arrivals at our international airports prevents them from doing so. As confirmed by aviation sources, many Filipinos are going the long way around averaging two or three stops as well as airlines to get from the Philippines to the US to Europe or Middle East or vice versa. One case I know of involves a retired academician who went from the Philippines to the US to Europe and the only way back was to get on a repatriation flight! All this skip-hop and jump costs so much money for Filipinos or travelers and lost income for Philippine carriers.

Sadly, the national government cannot even impose or enforce its will upon local governments to adopt a unified contact tracing app or uniformed protocols for inbound travelers, recognition of vaccination cards and RT-PCR. After half a year of talking, there is still no agreement or national policy on health requirements for visitors to tourist destinations. Some even wonder how government, both national and local, determine when a tourist spot such as Boracay Island can be opened or closed. How can companies such as airlines operate with regularity if they have to deal with every individual mayor or governor? That is supposed to be the job of the people in the National Government and the agencies such as the CAAP that govern aviation. We need to decide and have one rule on the matter because aviation is a vital and essential industry that affects millions of Filipinos and generates billions of pesos for different businesses in the country and beyond.

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